The disappointment is palpable. The surprise minuscule. 2016 has been billed in some quarters of the Caribbean as the year of 'turning the corner'. After more than a decade of underachievement, ignominy and embarrassment, the early months of this year had seen a return to the days of glory.
Three World Cup wins in a short space of months is something unimagined for any cricket team – not even the great, all-conquering West Indies side of the twenty-year period 1976-1995 could boast such an achievement.
The U-19 triumph indicated that the future is bright; the ladies’ victory showed the strength of the women’s game; and the men’s T20 success confirmed what many believed: the West Indies has the world’s best T20 cricketers. Even the recent ‘relative’ success of overcoming South Africa and making the final (losing to Australia) in the recent ODI tri-series in the Caribbean was a sign of improvement in the 50-over game: a format in which the Windies have failed to qualify for next year’s Champions Trophy tournament in England for the world’s top eight teams, WI ranking ninth on the ICC table.
They languish near the bottom in Test cricket too – but the visit of second-ranked India has given them an opportunity to make progress on that front. Four Tests - the first of which concluded on Sunday in Antigua - is a chance to take a step or two in the right direction. Sadly, and with depressing predictability, they succumbed again.
West Indies supporters did not expect victory in this series. A win in any of the Tests would be a remarkable achievement. But what they’ve been hoping for, praying for, is an indicator of improvement. There’s been none.
Since their last Test Match success a year ago, against England, West Indies have lost seven out of eight Tests (the other was a rain-ruined draw in Australia), and the narrowest of those defeats was by 72 runs. They’ve lost by an innings three times; by 277 runs; 177 runs; and nine wickets. It has not just been the defeats that have been hard to stomach, but the magnitude of them. Like it or not, West Indies are now regarded by opponents with as little respect or fear as Bangladesh. The patterns on scorecards of Tests featuring either of those two nations are remarkably similar. West Indies are desperately in need of a reality check.
West Indies are just not making progress in this format. So what can they do?
The immediate reaction after every such defeat is a familiar mantra: bring back the ‘best’ players. Each poor performance triggers such a cry from far and wide – making the assumption that performances and results would improve with their presence – and that ‘whatever it takes’ must be done to ensure their return. The fact is though, that on the whole those guys have made themselves unavailable – even in the face of repeated attempts of persuasion from coach Phil Simmons and Windies’ selectors, supporters and disappointed armchair spectators will just have to live with that.
But why are they unavailable? Why have so many retired from Test cricket?
For the most-part the reason is money – or lack of it. The Caribbean is desperately short of finance, and cricket lives a hand-to-mouth existence. A decision was taken by the WICB and WIPA (player’s union) three years ago to redistribute a large chunk of the pay the Test players were receiving and use it to pay for the professionalisation of the Caribbean’s domestic cricket structure.
Effectively, the top Test players were given a big pay cut, and the money was used to provide a living wage for each territory’s domestic first-class cricketers – the first time the WICB had properly invested in the region’s cricket structure at that level. It was an investment in the future- in the young, developing grassroots players – to the clear detriment of the present international players.
It was a noble idea, but it was very poorly executed. The communication between the Board and Union with the international players was so inadequate that the players only became fully aware of the reality (in the terms of their decreased wages) when they were on the 2014 ODI tour of India – and they took the extreme measure of striking mid-series in response.
The fall-out and distrust from that event on all sides lingers till this day – though the new wage structure has stayed in place. Hence, several well-known big names of the T20 circuit prefer the remuneration and trappings of that form of the game, rather than the humiliations and traipsings of Test cricket. And who can blame them?
The reality is that these guys are not going to return. And if they did, can we really be sure they’d make a big difference?
Chris Gayle has been a world-class batsman. But he is approaching 37, and has had ongoing severe back trouble. Is it strong enough to withstand the five-session stretches West Indies regularly spend in the field? It's as many as three times in the last six months that he’s been unable to field for the whole innings in a T20 match, and had to bat at number seven as a consequence. He couldn’t realistically take that lack of mobility into a Test Match.
Dwayne Bravo was at one-time maybe the world’s best all-rounder. But having lived in recent years on a surfeit of T20 cricket, would he still have the transferable skills for the longer format? Many wouldn’t doubt it for a moment. I do. Dwayne hasn’t played any first-class cricket for three years. And only three games in five and a half years. He has only bowled in excess of ten overs in an innings once in two years; and has only one fifty with the bat in that period. I personally wouldn’t pick a 'slower-ball' specialist who regularly bats for a handful of overs at number seven in my Test XI.
Daren Sammy was a fine skipper of the West Indies, and his leadership is much-missed. But his last two years as Test captain were blighted by continuous calls for his omission from the side for his lack of ability. Since then his bowling has deteriorated further, and he has never become a top six batsman.
Sunil Narine has had to remodel his bowling action, and was initially reluctant to return to any international cricket. He still hasn’t signalled that he feels able to do so in Tests – and may be unlikely to ever do so.
Kieron Pollard is a destructive limited overs batsman – but even when he was playing regular first-class cricket he was never considered a viable Test batsman because of a perceived inability to play the short ball.
Ravi Rampaul, Fidel Edwards and Tino Best have all lost their places in their domestic first-class sides in recent years. They’ve all enjoyed some success as Kolpak players in the English county championship, but they are not in the best half-dozen quick bowlers in the Caribbean anymore.
Andre Russell is a quality, exciting cricketer. But he may be about to face a two-year ban for missing random drug tests in Jamaica. He, like Lendl Simmons, has made himself unavailable from Test cricket, preferring to concentrate T20 cricket.
Jerome Taylor, Kemar Roach and Denesh Ramdin have all been dropped for lack of form. As was Shiv Chanderpaul just over a year ago. At their best, all of these (and all of the aforementioned too) would be a considerable bonus to this poor West Indies side. But almost all of them were part of the team in the fallow last decade, when results were better – but not much.
We can all bemoan the absence of those names (and lament, and debate, the reasons why they departed the Test arena too soon); but I don’t believe much would really be gained in the short term by their return - and there is a bigger picture.
Admittedly, West Indies playing second division Test cricket is a genuine reality on the horizon – but I don’t think Gayle, Bravo et al will be the cavalry racing to save them from this fate. It's not worth their while; and I don’t think they want to, having no sense of allegiance to West Indies cricket as presided over by the WICB, that would inspire them to do so.
The West Indies selectors have little choice but to stick with the youngsters, and pick sides with a view to build for the future - while hoping that some breakthrough can be made in the present. The talent is there. It’s the experience, and application that is lacking. They have adopted the philosophy that it’s better to lose with a young team that’s learning, than an old team that’s jaded.
The question is, how long before these youngsters tire of defeat and become jaded themselves, or are lucky enough to follow their senior colleagues and choose to opt out and pursue their trade elsewhere?