Monday, April 22, 2024

FAZEER MOHAMMED: Defensive posturing

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IT MAY have been disappointing, maybe even distressing.

However, there’s one thing that Thursday’s opening day of the Test series should not have been, and that’s surprising. In fact, the evidence of series after series over the past two years, almost without exception, shows that the West Indies have made a habit of being very much on the back foot by the time stumps are drawn on day one of any campaign in the traditional format of the game.

Okay, so it wasn’t as bad as at Hobart last December, when Australia reached stumps at 438 for three and from that point on the question wasn’t if but when they would complete the demolition of a team that already looked battered and broken just six hours into the series.

Still, it is a question worth asking as to why, with different coaches, different captains and different levels of preparation, the states of play are remarkably similar when the West Indies go into the second day of recent series trying to avoid annihilation, seeking somehow to keep their heads above water when everything points to them being swamped?

Going into Friday’s second day at the Vivian Richards Stadium in Antigua at 302 for four and with captain Virat Kohli poised on 143 and having already justified the decision to bat first, India were merely extending a pattern of early dominance that West Indian opponents have enjoyed in a variety of circumstances.

In fact, when the same teams last started a Test series, the celebrated “pappyshow” matches hastily arranged in November of 2013 to give Indian icon Sachin Tendulkar a grand farewell after 24 years on the international scene, the West Indies dutifully played the part of whipping boys in Kolkata by being routed for 234 and with the hosts at 34 without loss in reply at stumps on day one at Eden Gardens on the way to an innings victory inside three days.

Yet as much as the quality of the opponents’ performances is deserving of the highest commendation, it cannot be ignored that West Indies’ repeated predicament in Test cricket is often self-inflicted either through a defensive, defeatist mindset, bewildering tactics or a team composition that does little to instil confidence that the Caribbean side is actually of the belief that they can upset the form book.

Nearing the end of day one in Antigua with Kohli and Ravichandran Ashwin essentially shutting up shop after placing their team in a commanding position, outstanding former Indian opening batsman Sunil Gavaskar observed on television commentary that pre-series comments about the West Indies playing a waiting game against the Indians were virtually an admission that there was little faith in the ability of the bowlers to seize the initiative from the opposition.

Notwithstanding the heartening hostility and early success from fast bowler Shannon Gabriel within the first half-hour of play, almost everything else on that first day reinforced the perspective that the West Indies were playing a game of containment, waiting on the Indians to make the mistake. That tactic, if it was the tactic, worked for Devendra Bishoo, with the leg-spinner claiming three wickets via poor shot selection.

That’s all part of Test cricket, of course. On lifeless surfaces like the one that has become so familiar at the Vivian Richards Stadium and at many other venues throughout the Caribbean, there is really no option other than to stay disciplined and try to build pressure via the attritional duel that is quite dull as a cricketing spectacle.

It can be argued though that even the selection of the final eleven, with the uncapped Miguel Cummins omitted and therefore leaving Gabriel – whose fitness concerns meant that he has to be managed very carefully – as the lone strike bowler betrayed a defensive posturing.

No one can seriously question the commitment and perseverance of skipper Jason Holder and compatriot Carlos Brathwaite, but they are not attacking bowlers. On greener, harder tracks they may occasionally prove to be a handful. However, the absence of genuine pace on a benign pitch meant that they were at best restrictive.

For debutant Roston Chase to have delivered eight overs of occasional off-spin on the first morning while Bishoo was not handed the ball until the start of the second session again suggests an abundance of caution and maybe even a absence of confidence in letting the wrist-spinner have a go with the newer ball.

In stark contrast, the Indians went into the match with five front-line bowlers, sacrificing a specialist batting position, in the quest for the 20 wickets to take the early lead in the series.

Even if such a selection ultimately proves unsuccessful, it reflects a desire to win rather than merely not wanting to lose.

It is a critical difference in attitude.

Fazeer Mohammed is a regional cricket journalist and broadcaster who has been covering the game at all levels since 1987.

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