Amidst all the dire weather we’ve been having lately, one thing that has brought a smile to my face was an article by Christopher Martin-Jenkins in The Times last week.
In it he wrote of his slow recovery from illness, which has involved chemotherapy, radiotherapy and a series of seven operations. He won’t, he says, be able to attend the first Test at Lord’s next week, but is looking forward to watching it on TV, with great anticipation: “Never, truly, have I so looked forward to a Test match.”
It’s an article that gladdens the heart, not just because CMJ is on the mend, but because his joyful anticipation of the start of England’s international summer crystallizes all that is good about cricket and being alive to see it.
Not only that, but with the weather set fair for at least the next few days, it seems, after a false start involving much rain and many interrupted days of county cricket, with the first Test against the West Indies only days away, like we might be getting a summer after all.
I wish I could be as optimistic as CMJ about the Windies’ chances, though.
Their preparation has been shambolic. They arrived in the the UK last week in dribs and drabs due to visa cock-ups, and an eleven minus captain Darren Sammy were comprehensively demolished by England’s second string in the Lions game at Northampton. True, their batsmen did put up a better showing in their second innings, and Darren Bravo’s 57, following on from his 51 in the first innings, gave the pundits a chance to dust off those Brian Lara comparisons. But one respectable innings total and a couple of decent individual performances won’t win you a Test match, and certainly not against a full-strength England side.
That’s not to say there isn’t talent in the West Indies ranks – far from it. Their seam attack in English conditions could cause the home side some problems, though our batsmen have been more vulnerable to spin recently, as that embarrassing winter tour in the UAE demonstrated. But even then, bowling out this formidable England batting lineup twice seems like a mighty big ask, and their own batting looks brittle and inexperienced; one fears Shiv Chanderpaul will once again be asked to bear a heavy load on those diminutive shoulders.
When this West Indies team takes the field at Lord’s, it will be notable more for its absences. Chris Gayle, of course, is the most high profile. To a neutral, the conflict between him and the West Indies Cricket Board has been a long-protracted soap opera, a jaw-dropping saga of board-versus-player pettiness and pomposity. That finally seems to have come to an end now, with Gayle likely to be selected for the limited-overs matches that follow the Tests, though it seems the board administration took one more opportunity to place Gayle on the naughty step when it questioned his attitude for requesting clarity regarding his international future before turning down a T20 contract with Somerset.
Other notable absences include Dwayne Bravo and Sunil Narine, who, along with Gayle, are currently making the most of lucrative contracts in the IPL, the tournament that to the WICB represents such a huge stumbling block on the road back to the glory days for its national team.
In an article in The Cambridge Companion to Cricket, published last year, Hilary Beckles, a director of the West Indies Cricket Board, wrote: “No previous generation of West Indian cricket leaders has had as divisive an impact on Caribbean development discourse as that of Lara and Gayle. The failure of their teams to compensate for the spreading sense of despair in West Indian socio-economic decline and political disillusionment led to an intensely critical perception of both as politically unfit for the role of leadership. The public feels, furthermore, that despite its insistence on the team having an important political role ‘beyond the boundary’, the game has been hijacked by an uncaring cabal of mercenary money seekers, players without attachment to traditional sources of societal concerns.”
This, in a nutshell, is the conflict that lies at the heart of the mess West Indies cricket is in. To reinforce the credo of country before self the WICB has taken a route that favours the dictatorial over the constructive, and as far as individual player selection goes has discarded the disruptive in favour of the malleable.
It’s not an approach that makes much sense. It seems counter-productive to dispense so drastically with experience for the sake of unquestioning obedience. There also seems to be a lack of transparency as to why certain players have been discarded. The most notable of these are two players currently plying their trade – and scoring runs – in English county cricket.
Ramnaresh Sarwan has so far been a valuable addition to Leicestershire’s ranks this year, and while he could have been forgiven for rethinking his decision to sign for the Foxes in light of April weather that required a minimum of three jumpers, he quickly figured out the best way to keep warm at a chilly Grace Road is to score runs, and lots of them. You’d think his 105 against Derbyshire a few days before the squad was announced, as well as a Test average of 40, might have put him in with a shout of selection, but it seems other factors might have told against him.
He cites his closeness with the West Indies Players’ Association, which has a long history of conflict with the WICB, as the likely reason. “There are a few in the Caribbean who have been targeted and I am one of them,” he says. “I am trying not to focus on it too much, I am just happy to be here at Leicestershire. I do not have to worry about any coaches telling my fellow players that he wants me to fail and that he does not want me in the team.”
Brendan Nash, dropped from the West Indies squad last October while vice-captain, became so disillusioned with his treatment by the WICB that he moved back to Australia to play grade cricket for Melbourne’s Doutta Stars, saying he had no intention of returning to Jamaica in the near future. He is now scoring runs for Kent, and like Sarwan his experience has proved invaluable. He admits now his international career is probably over, but is still not sure entirely why.
“Looking back on my five years in West Indies cricket, it is a structure that is designed to make you fail,” he said. “I think I speak for a lot of guys when I say they are unsure what they need to do and why some people are selected, whether they are just from the right island, or what.”
Given their bowling attack, and the erratic but undoubted talent of the likes of Darren Bravo, green shoots of recovery do seem to be appearing for the West Indies, and – credit where credit’s due – Darren Sammy has grown into the leadership role beyond that of specialist coin-tosser to instil some team spirit into his troops. But when coach Ottis Gibson states: “If we can take this Lord’s Test to four days, that will be great,” it seems those shoots may yet be rooted in shallow soil.
Come Thursday, England’s goal will be to make them wilt.