I arrived in England some ten days ago, in the middle of the first warm-up game for the West Indies team’s tour of England.
It was back to business as usual, with the English media already sharpening their knives—sorry, pencils—to write ingloriously about the state of our cricket. Let’s be honest: the news has been the same for some 12 years now with clashes between West Indies and England, after we toured here in the year 2000. My honest feeling, though, is that this predominantly young and inexperienced team warrants a second glance—they are a very talented bunch.
The tour so far
Rain restricted the three-day fixture between the West Indies and Sussex to 39 overs, enough to expose our dislike of wet and severely cold conditions. The West Indies team travelled to Northampton to take on the Lions, the England A Team, in a four-day game, which we lost by ten wickets. Thankfully the media still had enough lead in their pencils to describe Darren Bravo as the “real deal” after his first-innings half-century in very tough conditions. Again, a West Indian player was able to strangle some niceties from the media with a well-played century. Kieran Powell scored 108 in the second innings. Only ten “victims” for our bowlers so far is worrying, but what could be more costly is rumours of niggling injuries. Kemar Roach hurt his ankle and couldn’t bowl in the second innings of the Northampton game; Fidel Edwards’ suspect back hopefully can hold up for the entire tour; and Ravi Rampaul’s stiff neck should not keep him out for long.
West Indies team
I don’t know if you’re seeing the same thing I’m seeing, but there are some positive signs. Bravo, Powell and the number-one batsman in the world, “Chanders,” must be going into this Test feeling confident that if they get a start, they are in good enough form to put their names on the cedarwood board in the dressing room reserved for century-makers and for bowlers taking five wickets or more in a Test match. A lot more is needed to win Test matches. So the West Indies team have to dig deeper for more resources and armoury for this battle. Any batsman who makes a century on debut, away from home against the number-one team in the world at the time, Australia, deserves to be in the team. I think so and maybe he thinks so as well—and that is where the problem lies. Adrian Barath needs to revisit those days and ask himself if he is as hungry, disciplined and dedicated today as he was back then— because those three words can turn you into a whole different machine.
That can bring the right type of nervousness, which all great sportsmen will tell you was always present, and, most importantly clarity. Clarity about your skill level, goal-setting, the opposition’s strengths and weaknesses, and the right amount of confidence—not over-confidence—needed to succeed. Kirk Edwards has been a solid performer, and deserves to go into the Test match with the sound backing of his teammates and management team. He bats in a position reserved for the very best, but at present lacks the form. Simple. He has to be told what his role is. And that, I feel, is to play the anchor role, spend time in the middle whilst the more in-form players take control. Let me make it very clear: I have spoken to Marlon Samuels on a few occasions since my last match on the international stage, and I remember even speaking to him that evening, thinking a little show of remorse or, “Tough luck, Skip,” would’ve been good enough. Still waiting, but that’s water under the bridge. My only genuine disappointment with Marlon Samuels is his inability to fulfil the huge potential he showed when he burst on to the international stage 12 years ago. No better time than now, Marlon.
The England team
The English team is a very professional outfit. Their players’ statistics are some of the best in the world and their record at home for the last ten years is enviable. Scoring over 400 runs in an innings and taking 20 wickets has become a habit during their successful period. What the West Indies can hope for is an alteration in the English team’s plan for this series after their winter blemish. It would be difficult to find a more consistent opening pair in world cricket at the moment than the English captain Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook. Alastair is going about his business of scoring runs in an unattractive way, but one that’s very beneficial for his team. The captain, on the other hand, has struggled: in his last 49 innings, he has only recorded one century. The same could’ve been said about Tendulkar in pursuit of his 100th international hundred. Strauss is no Tendulkar, but he is good enough to make this a big series for himself with the bat. Trott, Pietersen and Bell form a middle order that can be subdued if necessary and pile on the runs, or, most devastating, putting the opposition on the defensive. A very dangerous player with the bat will be their wicketkeeper, Matt Prior, an attacking batsman—not as good as Adam Gilchrist, but he has had a fair share of success, and has produced match-winning performances when England most needed it. Their bowling is going to be spearheaded by James Anderson and Stuart Broad. Anderson is a class act and will pose a big challenge for the West Indies top-order batsmen if they bat first this morning. The English selectors have experimented with their third fast-bowling option, but one thing they have found is a spinner in Graeme Swann. Some outstanding performances place him in the upper echelon of spinners in the 21st century.
England, late last year, were comprehensively beaten by Pakistan, and managed to pull off a drawn series in Sri Lanka—and still they remain at the top of the ICC Test rankings. Credit to them: they have distanced themselves from the pack and could afford a hiccup or two. They are wounded from their winter results and could react in a couple of ways. It will do the West Indies team no harm if England decides to aggressively seek and destroy their opposition. That is not their normal successful approach, applied in the past to get them to the top of the world cricket rankings. They are a team that went about their plans in a patient and methodical manner, striking only when the time was right. My advice to Sammy and his boys is to frustrate the England team into making mistakes, the same way they did it to us back in 1990 in the Caribbean. The toss is vital. It was a beautiful day yesterday and the pitch was uncovered for most of it, but there should be some moisture still left when play starts today. It is less about our bowlers using the early-morning moisture and more about not letting the opposition do so, because the result of that could be crippling. My suggestion would be to field first and start the process of taking 20 wickets right away.
The Lord’s pitch also brings more handsome results for batsmen on the second and third day. Select one attacking fast bowler—and my choice would be Kemar Roach, who is bowling fast and with more success than Fidel Edwards at the moment. He should be used in short bursts at key moments in the game to snatch the advantage.
The captain and Rampaul should see themselves as bowlers who could frustrate the opposing batsmen by what is famously known as “bowling down the corridor of uncertainty.” A good line and length and a little movement is enough to cause trouble to the best of batsmen. I would like to see the spinner Shillingford play. It will be tough for him, as the England batting line-up only has two left-handers in their top eight, and they are opening the innings. The variety is important, and as the game gets into the last two days, he may become a factor to contend with, as the pitch should respond to spin more favourably. A good bowling performance, if we win the toss and choose to bat, could take some pressure off the batsmen and could alter the English plans. Batting first or second, the West Indies need to have a plan against such an experienced and highly effective bowling attack. I will get straight to the point: Take the fielders in the slip cordon out of the game. Play at balls between wicket and wicket until you’re sure you can step outside of that with authority. Earlier on, I said I don’t fancy going into the players’ dressing room—but if I’m allowed, I will be the first man there to congratulate the boys if we can pull off a surprise victory, or even a draw— once it’s not achieved thanks to the bad weather prevailing in England at the moment.