Thursday, April 25, 2024

Hit the ground running, boys

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A HOST of variables confront the West Indies in the eighth, and last, ICC Champions Trophy tournament that starts for them against Pakistan on Friday at London’s Oval, venue as well for their second qualifying round match against India on Tuesday week.
It was there that they achieved their unforgettable triumph in the 2004 final when, as considerable outsiders, they defeated an England team that had whitewashed them 4-0 in the preceding Test series.
The Oval was once a home away from home for the West Indies with packed and vocal support from their immigrant kith and kin who had located in the neighbouring Brixton and Stockwell areas after settling in London in the Fifties and Sixties; for a variety of reasons, steep ticket prices prominent among them, support from that source has all but disappeared over the past 20 years.
Even so, 2004 remains strong in the West Indian consciousness. Dwayne Bravo, the new captain for the 50-50 format, Chris Gayle, Ramnaresh Sarwan and Darren Sammy are survivors from that champion team. It is a motivational memory; the conquest in the World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka last October is further inspiration.
Always upbeat, Gayle put it this way: “We are switched on. We can win it. The last time, nine years ago, no one thought we would win it but we did.
“It was a great feeling and we would love to win it again for the people back home and those all over the world who support us . . . . We can use that victory and we can use the T20 victory last year as positives as we look ahead to this tournament.”
While such optimism is heartening, Sarwan and coach Ottis Gibson have both made the valid point about the need to quickly adapt to English conditions, Gibson going as far as regarding the home team as favourites for that reason.
He might have changed his mind after their lacklustre loss to New Zealand at Lord’s on Friday, but the key West Indians (captain Bravo, Gayle, Kieron Pollard, Darren Sammy, Sunil Narine and Ravi Rampaul along with new boy Jason Holder) – and Indians and Australians, too – have come directly out of the IPL with its heat, exhausting internal travel and peculiar demands of Twenty20 cricket. Marlon Samuels had three matches for the Pune Warriors before a groin injury, now mended, ended his stint.
The weather forecast for London over the coming week is sunny and dry but the temperature will be ten degrees lower than in Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and other points on the IPL compass and the character of the pitches significantly different.
The players involved in the domestic regional tournaments, with their spin-friendly surfaces, also don’t have much time to settle in. There are three qualifying matches (Pakistan, India and South Africa) so that defeat in even one could mean elimination.
While the Gangnam-style euphoria of the World Twenty20 still lingers as a stimulus, the results in the away One-Day International (ODI) tournaments that followed sounded the warning that the only similarity between the two are the coloured strips and the use of a white ball. The West Indies went down 3-2 in Bangladesh in December, 5-0 in Australia in February.
In such an abbreviated competition as the Champions Trophy, the West Indies can’t afford the inconsistencies that featured in all three tournaments.
They advanced to the Twenty20 championship in Colombo in spite of first-round losses to Sri Lanka and Australia and a tie with New Zealand. Such a record in the coming three weeks would eliminate them from the Champions Trophy.
In the three ODI losses in Bangladesh, they crashed for 199, 132 and 217, failing to bat the full 50 overs each time; in Australia, they were routed for 70 in the first match and twice lost a firm grip on the opposition’s innings that recovered from 98 for six to 266 for seven in the second match and from 84 for four to 274 for five in the fifth.
There were lessons to be learned from each, corrections to be made. Bravo’s elevation to the specific captaincy might be one answer, in the words of chief selector Clyde Butts “to freshen the leadership”; a change to those who bowl the closing overs “at the death” and a shuffling of the top-order batting others.
For all that, there were extenuating circumstances to the setbacks in both Bangladesh and Australia.
Dwayne Bravo, through injury, and Sarwan, through straightforward exclusion, were missing in Bangladesh, Samuels in Australia. All three are now in England. In addition, the two series coincided with Gayle’s leanest period for West Indies (a topscore of 35 in nine successive innings in ODIs and Twenty20s).
After Gayle’s revival with his Test hundred against Zimbabwe in Dominica in March and his record returns in the IPL, there is unlikely to be a repeat by an intimidating batsman whose approach at the top of the order sets the agenda for any match; if there is, hopes of a repetition of 2004 will rapidly recede.
Ironically, opponents remain wary of the West Indies because of their record as a team of dangerous unpredictability, as capable of sheer brilliance one day as of shocking mediocrity the next, of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory as reversing the cliché.
Their 2004 Champions Trophy upset, for instance, came a few weeks after the Test sweep by England; in contrast, what followed was just one win in their next 13 ODIs in Australia and at home against South Africa and Pakistan.
 Over the past year, they have completed six consecutive Test victories, if over teams ranked below them by the ICC, victories all the same; not since 1988-89 had they managed that (four in England, three in Australia under Viv Richards).
Yet sandwiched between the two is that unimpressive away ODI record.
The reality is that they are better balanced and more experienced than they were nine years ago. The inspiration for the team then led by Brian Lara was their commitment to providing a boost to the people of Grenada which had been devastated in the space of a year by hurricanes Ivan and Jeanne; now it is living up to the expectations created by their world champions status, even if it happens to be of an entirely different type.
Mix in a large helping of consistency and Gayle could be leading the team in whatever the latest dance craze is after Bravo lifts the trophy as Lara had done.
 • Tony Cozier is the most experienced cricket writer and commentator in the Caribbean.

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