Another false dawn? Or maybe the first glimmerings of a genuine West Indies Test cricket revival?
Jason Holder’s team’s victory in the third and final Test in UAE versus Pakistan is, at the very least, a demonstration of what they are capable of.
The Caribbean’s decline and fall into mediocrity and ignominy, since their dethroning by Australia in 1995 as the undisputed champions of the world, has been gruesome to watch - and for the cricket lovers of the island region, unbearable and heart-breaking.
As the downward slide continued, as the plummet from the pinnacle became more pronounced until nearly the depths themselves were plumbed, hope dwindled to almost complete eradication. Thousands of supporters have given up on West Indies in the most prestigious form of the game; some have turned their backs for good. This result, this upset, against all expectations, will swivel a few backs, raise many a smile, and lift both heads and hearts.
Have they turned the corner? Is there a light at the end of the tunnel? I can guarantee that this will be the cliched question in all the major cricket talk shows in the territory in the coming week. In Barbados, Trinidad, Jamaica, Guyana and throughout all the islands, sports hosts will be asking pundits and former players if West Indies has at last reached a pivotal point? The general response will be one of cautious optimism, but with an awareness that this is at best a first step on a very long and rocky road to recovery.
This beam of light, this victorious ray of sunshine, could not have burst through the clouds at a more welcome time: West Indies have been wracked with interminable, internal, internecine intrigues and arguments of one sort or another for decades - and barely a week goes by without the latest protest, airing of grievance, or voice of disharmony from either the senior generation of better-paid West Indies players, or from within the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) itself.
This win could not have been opportune. In a week in which Bangladesh defeated England in a Test for the first time, the West Indies — for so long looking forlornly at those above them in the ICC Test rankings — must be peering fearfully over their shoulder at those below them. Being overtaken by Bangladesh, always thought of as impossibility, is now a genuine reality.
West Indies cricket has not been blind to the collapse of its once-powerful cricketing empire - and the WICB has attempted to rebuild the crumbled edifice slowly from the ruined foundations upwards with a view to the future. But in doing so, it is effectively paying for the redevelopment by taking great bundles of cash from the earnings of the established, and illustrious, internationally-renowned players of the older generation. It is little wonder, maybe, that household names like Chris Gayle, Dwayne Bravo, Kieron Pollard, Sunil Narine, etc. have made themselves unavailable to represent the region in the less profitable five-day format. Cricketers are not a charity, and altruism is not a requisite of any sportsman.
Regrettably, this has left the West Indies team without many of those guys who have a star-billing. The general perception is that that makes the West Indies Test team weaker. That may have been so two or three years back, but I doubt that a handful of players who have gorged on T20 cricket and barely played a first-class match between them in half a decade would be automatically able to ‘turn back the clock’ and deliver performances of both Test standard and character.
To dwell on those fallen but not-forgotten heroes is to miss the point. What’s done is done and it’d be better for all to move on. The past is another country, but the present and future needs to be about the West Indies. Thus, it is of far more importance on the day of this famous victory to note those current players who have reportedly declined the latest retainer contract from the board: Marlon Samuels, Darren Bravo and Carlos Brathwaite.
Samuels is no loss – despite his heroics in this year’s World T20 tournament, his card has been marked in Tests for some time. His performances have been poor, and there is a body of opinion in the Caribbean that if a player is continually failing they’d prefer him to be a youngster who may learn and develop, rather than an older man whose powers are terminally in decline. This was the basic reasoning for the jettisoning of the great Shiv Chanderpaul last year, who’d endured 12 months of low scores. His replacement may not have been a better player – but he did have youth on his side.
The real concerns are the probable losses of Bravo and Brathwaite. Carlos’s dynamics in the World T20 final have made him a big draw at the box-office — and probably even more people now remember his name and then remember Ian Bishop’s original quote. But the fact is Carlos has not made an impact in Test cricket, so to allow him the freedom to pursue the riches of T20 cricket leagues is fair enough. He may not be a great loss to the Windies Test team; he’ll be more missed by his island’s (Barbados) four-day team if he is constantly away biffing boundaries in the Big Bash, IPL and elsewhere.
Hopefully, common sense will prevail and individual dispensation will be made so that he can remain an integral part of the West Indies ODI team, but for that he must (under current WICB rules) appear in the Caribbean’s domestic 50-over competition in the New Year – which usually clashes with the Big Bash. If so, it may be that Carlos, the recently-appointed West Indies T20 captain, will be the latest player from the region to focus almost exclusively on the skills - and financial rewards - of the shortest format.
The potential loss of the younger Bravo will have the biggest impact on the Test side. A major talent who has never fulfilled the expectations of some for him to attain greatness, he is, nonetheless, a key player in the West Indies XI. For a batsman of his gifts, he has undeniably underachieved. And yet his occasional brilliance is not something they can afford to do without. But one does wonder what else young Darren will be doing if he is not furthering his Test career? He is a capable, but not devastating T20 batsman - and he may not be high on many franchise team’s wants list. Or maybe he is considering a move in the other direction – dedicating himself to the grind of English county cricket? We shall see.
Wherever he goes, whatever he does, if he is largely unavailable for the West Indies Test team, then he is a profound loss, and the latest casualty of the WICB’s mismanagement of this transitional phase in its restructuring. Board president Dave Cameron recently said people in the future will look back on this period and see that how they went about things was right. He may be proved correct. But right now what most observers focus upon is the continuing bitterness and disharmony between the outgoing generation of players and the WICB. The future does not take care of itself. Previous generations of administrators in the Caribbean’s great days assumed it would – and look at the outcome. Cameron has not made that mistake – but many ask if the price he is paying in ostracizing and abandoning the current generation of good cricketers is worth it?
He and his supporters will leap on this Test victory as evidence that it is. The emerging crop of players like Kraigg Brathwaite, Jason Holder, Roston Chase, Shane Dowrich, alongside decent performers like the lion-hearted Shannon Gabriel and the canny Devendra Bishoo give them hope that the curve will continue to be upwards.
Many of those players have emerged from the new professional structure, the four-day regional tournament which will soon turn three years old — and will confirm that they owe much of their improvement and development to the newly professionalized domestic Caribbean first-class competition. A tournament which has doubled in length and its number of fixtures has allowed twice as much ‘proper’ cricket to be played, and allowed more room and opportunity for the next generation to learn their craft. This restructuring was largely paid for, controversially, from money reallocated by reducing the payments to the established international players. In a cash-strapped region, this provided the funding that has allowed emerging talents like Roston Chase and Alzarri Joseph to be full-time cricketers. It was also the root cause of the West Indies ODI team’s strike in India in 2014.
The fall-out and rancour from that event and the continuing pay dispute rumbles on. The outside world is bewildered how the WICB can apparently deliberately reject the likes of the coach, the captain and many players of the victorious World T20 campaign of a mere few months ago? The Board has concluded that rather than argue with them, they’d rather just get rid of them — but that insults and undervalues that group’s World Cup triumph.
Insiders would respond that if not the greater, nor more acclaimed, yet more significant successes in 2016 were those achieved by the Windies Women’s team in their World T20 tournament; and by the U-19s in their age-group 50-over World Cup. Equally important have been the victories and experiences gained these last few weeks by the Windies ‘A’ team in Sri Lanka – where they narrowly lost the 3-Test series 2-1, and swept the ODIs 3-0. This is where the genuine focus, and progress of West Indian cricket is being identified.
But in all this talk of the past and the future, us West Indies supporters must not neglect the present: a win is a win, and this one in an away Test match over Pakistan was a glorious one. We should savour it; we should bask in its glow, and delight in its warmth. We must acclaim the heroes, and salute the derring deeds of the match-winners: Kraigg Brathwaite, with an undefeated 202 runs across two innings spanning a monumental ten and a half hours without dismissal; captain Jason Holder for decisive bowling figures of 5-30 from 17.3 overs, at a time when many believed he was incapable of being a strike bowler; Devendra Bishoo, with seven wickets in the match (and eighteen in the series) that prove he is a high-class Test leg-spinner; and Shane Dowrich, who kept wicket tidily, but more importanlyt twice provided Brathwaite with invaluable support in the middle-order when Windies were tottering – and was there with him to lead the boys home and to victory on the final morning.
These players - indeed all the members of the squad - have the ability, the skill, and the talent to win more often. What they lack is self-belief, confidence, concentration – and sometimes motivation. These are all factors they and the management team need to be working upon. If they can get these things right, then these guys can win again. And again. I doubt there’s anybody in the cricketing world who would begrudge them that, and doesn’t long to see it happen.