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The poisoned chalice
The West Indies captaincy has been described as a poisoned chalice because it is one of the most difficult jobs in the sporting world. For one, you are following in the footsteps of giants like Lloyd, Sobers, Richards, and Worrell. The weight of history on your shoulders is tremendous, from multiple World Cups to years of dominance to worldwide respect and admiration for teams of yore. Moreover, you are also seeking to diplomatically manoeuvre in a multinational dressing room. Jamaicans, Guyanese, Bajans, Trinidadians, St Lucians and others are all trying to coexist for the sake of cricket, but there is quite a lot that culturally separates them.
Unlike England or Australia, with players from different states or regions playing with a united national conscience, the West Indies’ collection of nationalities makes team captaincy akin to being the Secretary General of CARICOM (the Caribbean Community). Over the past two decades, all of this has happened against the backdrop of a lot of losing, controversies with the administration, cries of nepotism, and too many stresses and strains to mention. The West Indies captaincy is definitely a hot seat to occupy. During the past two years, Darren Julius Garvey Sammy has been the one with his bum on the roast. To say that his tenure has been less than smooth would be an understatement, because “Smiling Sammy” has, in fact, been one of the most polarising figures in the region since ascending to the helm.
During his time as captain, a number of fans have kicked and screamed, saying that he isn’t the right man for the job, that he doesn’t deserve a permanent spot in the team, that he is keeping a more deserving bowler (usually) out of the playing XI, and that he is a bowler who only thrives in favourable conditions. More often than not, observers have been able to find an area of his performance to pick on, from “agricultural” batting strokes to pedestrian pace bowling. While his captaincy hasn’t found as much disfavour, there have also been claims that he is a sentinel of coach Ottis Gibson, and that his place as captain is to enforce the “new culture” of Gibson’s management.
Though murmurs of discontent have continued, Sammy the cricketer has persisted, mixing steady but not devastating bowling with an uncompromising batting style to be a solid member of the team in all three formats. Now, approximately two years into his tenure as captain, the Sammy debate has arrived at a pivotal juncture. The first two one-day internationals that West Indies play against Zimbabwe are the first time that Sammy is not in a West Indies playing XI (regardless of the format) since becoming captain in 2010. For those who have been anti-Sammy, it’s a moment that has been long overdue. For those who supported Sammy from the beginning, it might be a tense situation. And for those that have recognised an improvement in the team as a whole and have given Sammy the go-ahead as long as the team is growing, this is a chance to see whether the team has developed thanks to the man from St Lucia, or in spite of him.
Two matches aren’t much to judge by, especially against an opposition that isn’t among the most formidable on the world stage, but they are still a test in some respects. The Zimbabweans can play with a free spirit because they haven’t much to lose. West Indies, on the other hand, are coming off a 0-5 whitewash at the hands of Australia, and 2-3 loss at the hands of Bangladesh—they need to get back on track in the 50-overs format. Dwayne Bravo steps into the leadership role in Sammy’s absence, and if he enjoys significant success, Sammy may once again find the lights of inspection being focused on him. The inspiring World T20 triumph released a lot of pressure on Sammy as a leader. Supporters and cynics alike had to acknowledge the positive vibes that came from the West Indies team. He has, for better or for worse, made an impact on West Indies cricket, and the more you look at it, the better the influence seems to be.
However, despite all that, some may argue that he has outlived his usefulness. There is a notion that Sammy’s time as leader was simply a necessary evil in accomplishing the greater goal of “fixing” West Indies cricket—the captain needed to be a glue and not a divider, a disciple and not a rebel, and a loyalist and not a globetrotter in order for the team’s challenges to be overcome. There is little doubt that Sammy has helped to bind the team, preach a consistent and positive message, and show an unwavering commitment to Caribbean cricket. Under Sammy, the seeds of paradigmatic shift have been sewn, the tree of stability has grown to a decent height, and fruits of success have begun to bear. The lingering question, though, is whether or not the job is done.
Considering the possibilities, winning or losing against Zimbabwe might not spark an immediate change in the status quo, but it may certainly affect the timeline. If the team can win emphatically, it may suggest that Sammy’s task of building a strong foundation is far enough along to no longer necessitate him as a bold leadership figure. On the other hand, unconvincing victory or even defeat could simply reaffirm Sammy’s importance, and show the Caribbean public (especially his detractors) that he is an essential part of the team machinery.
There are, of course, peripheral factors that will be important—Chris Gayle and Marlon Samuels are also not playing, and their absence diminishes the quality of the batting line-up significantly. Additionally, the continued policy of not choosing the evergreen Shivnarine Chanderpaul for ODIs leaves the team very short on experience. Be that as it may, Sammy’s absence will be a significant subplot throughout the matches. Metaphorically, in the absence of the captain, will the ship sail or sink? For now, the great Sammy debate stands at the crossroads.
EDITOR’S NOTE: West Indies dominated the three-match ODI series against Zimbabwe—3-0.
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