Ramnaresh Sarwan: Fade to Black

A tour to Australia once was something to behold for a West Indian. It was here that Clive Lloyd suffered the humiliation at the hands of Lillee and Thomson which spurred him to world domination, where
Mike Holding and Viv Richards ruled World Series Cricket. It was where Curtley Ambrose and Courtney Walsh rocked on spicy pitches and where Brian Lara didn’t so much signpost his greatness but unveil a fifty foot placard stating: “I rule” as he smashed Australia’s bowling attack to all parts.

Their latest incursion, an One Day International series shoehorned into the back-end of the winter is an inglorious continuation of this tradition, a filthy image of a glorious history. And, it’s been a miserable tour to boot.

The defining image of this tour has been the sight of Ramnaresh Sarwan groping around for semblance of form – two ducks, a hell experienced at the hands of Mitchell Starc – a redemptive tour of duty this most definitely has not been. Watching him play now is akin to what people must have felt watching Colin Cowdrey or Brian Close were recalled from nowhere to return to international cricket. The difference was that while those two were in retirement, Sarwan is just 32 and still conceivably, capable of a return.

Sarwan remains a curiosity, a strange curiosity. Here is a man who four years ago was in the form of his life. If England’s tour of the West Indies was famous for Sabina Park and Jerome Taylor, the other noteworthy point of the tour was Sarwan. His 291, the second highest score scored against England in the past 5 years, was his definitive peak. He was untouchable, in the zone at a highpoint which few batsmen can reach.

Yet nine Tests later, Sarwan’s international career seems over. His last Test was in 2011, he has been ostracized by Ottis Gibson and the West Indian management resulting in a successful legal challenge in the mean time. He is only 32, the same age as Kevin Pietersen, and yet his form has disappeared. If his recent form is a barometer of where is game is then he should be concerned, his recent form for Guyana is inconsistent, he has two ducks in two matches when he should have been pressing his case for recall.

It will be a curious end if indeed it is the end. Sarwan emerged as a prodigy, stuck around for ten years as an indicative boom-bust batsmen in a boom-bust team, not as gritty as Chanderpaul but easier on the eye, yet not as stylish or consistent as Lara. He was a mix of the two, a gritty batsmen who when on form could score big runs stylishly. He was the youngest West Indian to 5,000 runs, has more Test centuries than Chris Gayle, George Headley or Frank Worrell and an average of 40.

In a West Indian team which is still very much in a developmental phase, and with Shiv Chanderpaul aging, on record alone he would surely be a certain pick in a side lacking genuine experience but for his own battles to rediscover the game which made him such a capable batsman in the first place.

In a strange way, his career’s rapid decline has parallels with that of another West Indian right hander of repute, Lawrence Rowe. Rowe’s decline was exacerbated by an eye condition, Sarwan’s are less obvious. Perhaps it is just a decline in form, in fitness or perhaps a mental realisation that maybe at 32 he is no longer that batsman striking with a touch of grace, a flourish and plenty of poise. That is how he would prefer to be remembered, as the boy from Guyana who at times batted like a king. If his final moments in a West Indies team are dark one’s, thankfully they will not be defining one’s.

Jonny Bairstow: England’s latest contender

An old saying goes: “One man’s loss is another man’s gain”, for England’s prospective batsmen this saying will ring truer than most – chances come rarely, so be ready when they come.

So after Jonny Bairstow was named as England’s latest man to take up the mantle to fill the troublesome number six position which they have yet to fill following Paul Collingwood’s retirement it was hard not to imagine what Eoin Morgan and Ravi Bopara were filling at seeing themselves overtaken by a younger contender.

Morgan’s travails are well documented, and the comparisons with Michael Bevan – invulnerable in one format, vulnerable in the other – now have a real edge as his technique outside the offstump has been unravelled. As for Ravi Bopara – English cricket’s equivalent of Peter Pan – injury strikes at the wrong time, just as he appeared set for his third crack at Test cricket. He offers the best balance with bat and ball, plays aggressively when he backs himself but despite three Test centuries has never established himself with certainty in the side. He appears to be almost a relic of the Hick/Ramprakash generation – a talent unable to ever find his feet at the highest level.

Yet while those two find themselves on the outside looking in, it is worth reflecting on the rapid rise of Bairstow from young prospect to prospective number six. It is a brave call from the selectors who have ignored Michael Carberry’s experience, James Taylor’s potential and Nick Compton’s form, but on the basis of Bairstow’s career thus far, they ought not to be fearful that he could find the step up a difficult one.

As the son of former England international David Bairstow, cricket runs in the genes along with the red hair and some skill behind the wicket, but it is for his batting that he has been picked and in this regard, Bairstow junior has shown a prodigious ability from a very early age – even being named Young Wisden Schools Cricketer of the Year award after scoring 654 runs at an average of 218 as a 17 year old.

Two years later he was thrust into the Yorkshire first team as a 19-year old, forced to replace Michael Vaughan from injury, yet he was not fazed by the rapid promotion and responded with a battling 82 in the second innings as well as taking over the gloves from regular keeper Gerard Brophy.

Having shown he could make the step up, and with Michael Vaughan retiring, Bairstow was a permanent fixture in the side – scoring 592 runs at an average of 45.53. The following season, was even more prodigious – 918 runs at 41.72 as wicket-keeper batsman – and his lower order exploits helped power Yorkshire’s push for the title, twice scoring half centuries as Yorkshire chased down targets that summer against Warwickshire and eventual champions Nottinghamshire.

Though he was having issues regarding conversion, continuing his rapid development he put that right in only his second full season as a County pro, scoring two centuries including 205 against Nottinghamshire, and finishing with 1015 runs at 46.13 in a side which was relegated from Division One and struggled all season long.

England were alerted to his potential and he responded with a fine match-winning cameo on debut against India, and despite struggling on the ODI tour in India in the Autumn, he responded in customary fashion with a couple of sparkling knocks for England in Abu Dhabi and he now appears to be a fixture in both the Twenty20 and ODI teams moving forward, now only the Test side remains for him to conquer.

Expect his batting to be tested, first by the pace of Kemar Roach and Ravi Rampaul for the West Indies and later the battery of South African quick bowlers, but Bairstow’s game is well-built to survive the tests ahead. He scores his runs quickly and with a wristy flourish which recalls Mahendra Singh Dhoni, allowing him to muscle decent length deliveries over the leg side in limited overs cricket, while never appearing ill at ease against either speed or spin and more importantly as continued to iron out any kinks in his technique during his rapid rise.

But he also has a mature head to him, suiting him at key moments for County and Country where others have failed, and which ought to suit him well in the pressure cooker environment of Test cricket and particular to the peculiar demands of balancing attack and defence at number six which Collingwood in his prime did so well.

Next Thursday if England’s selection policy remains consistent then it will be Bairstow who will get his chance at the highest level of international cricket, and while he may be the next cab on the number six rank for England, judging by his career so far Bairstow certainly won’t be phased when the time comes.

Kraigg Brathwaite: Too Much, Too Young?

Too much Test cricket?

Judging a young player is always a tricky business. For every prodigy who goes on to emulate Sachin Tendulkar or Alistair Cook, there are at least ten sporting sob stories to tell you that gauging ‘potential’ is far from an exact science.

Lathwell, for those who cannot remember, was a young star fast emerging on English cricket’s horizon leading Wisden to proclaim that “no-one since Gower had quickened the pulse like Lathwell”. Certainly in terms of wristy, attacking strokeplay Wisden wasn’t far wrong, yet unlike Gower the step up proved too much as two Tests into what could have been a long and prosperous career, he was out; permanently.

Lathwell became a byword for wasted potential, but also a darker lesson for those who believe in promoting youth too far, too fast. His game had potential, but pushing it too far appeared to push it too much. His story came to mind when watching Kraigg Brathwaite, a talent no doubt, but one who is arguably being pushed too far, too fast.

Brathwaite clearly has the game for Test cricket, a nudger and nurdler built in the mould of the more successful Test batsmen currently thriving in cricket’s longest form – Trott, Cook, Chanderpaul, Misbah et al. He has pedigree too; relative at least in terms of a prodigious scoring record at youth level which has only added to the intrigue surrounding is fast emergence in the game. His nose for run scoring has served well in Test cricket where he has already notched up four relatively sedate 50s which for a youngster making his way in the game hints at far greater things to come.

But while no-one expects the finished article from a 19-year old, the concerns and the flaws in his game ought to be real enough to send alarm bells ringing. Six ducks in nine Tests and two single figure scores are not enough for an opener, while his aversion to moving his feet are an obvious cause for concern should there be any movement off the pitch.

Perhaps it is to be expected. Brathwaite has played little more than 30 first class matches, registering two centuries but it has barely begun learning the game let alone preparing himself against bowling of sufficient pace or quality to deal with the first choice Test attacks of Australia or England. He is a victim of circumstance, being pressed into action to try and fill the void left by the absent Lendl Simmons and more importantly Chris Gayle which is a hard task for any player let alone one so inexperienced.

Though the fear is that the step up now could do more harm than good for his game. Brathwaite is clearly a talent, but Test cricket is no easy training ground and learning from your mistakes is far from an instructive way to learn how to prosper in the longest form. If cricket history tells us anything, it is that even the best talents need time to grow and for Brathwaite the growing pains could just be doing more harm than good.

Michael Clarke and Chris Read: The Two Sides to Captaincy

Captaincy, as Richie Benaud once said, “is ninety percent luck and 10 percent skill, but just don’t try it without the ten percent”. In an era where the captaincy brain drain is felt more keenly than most both at a domestic and international level, this past week has shown that Benaud’s sentiments still remain true today.

Firstly in the Caribbean there was Michael Clarke’s bold declaration for Australia against the West Indies, setting Darren Sammy’s team a target of 215 to win with little more than 60 overs, was a carrot worth dangling with rain in the air and a fragile batting line-up to prey upon. In the end rain curtailed the contest, but it was Clarke’s declaration which gave us one in the first place.

It was a bold move, especially given the history of West Indian sides chasing against Australian ones in the past decade, but was a fitting symbol of Clarke’s captaincy which has not so much defied expectations as completely redefined them. About 18 months ago Clarke was losing popularity polls to Marcus North and Cameron White (look what’s happened to those two) in the race to succeed Ricky Ponting but it’s hard to imagine anyone else being as comfortable in the role as Clarke has.

He has carved out his own niche as a captain. His bold and daring field placing suggest that his friendship with Shane Warne has rubbed off on him, and unlike many of his peers he seeks to take wickets first and foremost rather than opt for containment – ask yourself how many international captains would have set such a daring target? While the leadership has elevated his batting to a new level – he averages 58 with the bat, as a cricketer it has made him complete. In an era where few dare, Clarke does.

Yet while Clarke’s sparky contribution suggested a captain at the peak of his powers tactically, it was the contribution of one of the more underrated cricketers of this era which was a true embodiment of one of those other qualities befitting the finest captains – the ability to lead by example. While Chris Read and Clarke may make unlikely kinfolk, they share one thing in common: captaincy appears to have brought the best out of both of them.

Read’s abilities are well known and brought with them England recognition, but there was always a questionmark about his capacity to cope mentally with the rigours of international cricket (normally voiced by Duncan Fletcher) which dogged his quest for a regular spot as England wicket keeper. Yet if there were any doubts about Read’s capacity to perform under pressure, his performances as Nottinghamshire captain ought to have alleviated them – not least his latest effort against Somerset.

Read’s reign has not just been wildly successful both in terms of silverware and accolades – County Championship and Wisden Cricketer of the Year in 2010 – but like Clarke it has raised his game to another level as he frequently plays the role of finisher or saviour depending on circumstances. Yet for all the previous efforts, he will be hard pressed to play a more impressive lone hand for the rest of his career.

While his much vaunted top order fell to a series of injudicious strokes, it was left to Read to save the day and after striding out at 5-34 he scored a magnificent 104* in a total of 162 where only one other batsman on his team reached double figures. But for that effort, Nottinghamshire could have crumbled and ultimately it allowed them to escape with a draw on the final day, which was scant reward for Read’s efforts, which even the great cricketing leaders-by-example like Graeme Smith or Ricky Ponting would have been proud of.

And perhaps that is what both he and Clarke have shown this week. That there are two sides to captaincy – a tactical side and a temperamental side which both have a role in their ability to lead, but according to Benaud that’s 10% of it, the rest is luck. Fortunately for both, luck, or the capacity to make their own luck is something they appear to have in spades with bat or brain – a lesson for all captains perhaps.

West Indies: Devendra Bishoo and the new hope

Darren Sammy has scarcely had a reason to celebrate during his time as West Indies captain yet as Pakistan crumbled and a procession of batsmen came and went in the afternoon he was beaming from ear to ear.

Perhaps it helped he’d played his own significant part, taking two key wickets, bowling a tight economic spell which helped crank up the pressure will put a spring in anyone’s step but it could have had something to do with what was happening at the other end.

Because it was pretty special. A young leg spinner gripping the ball, ripping leg break after leg break, beating batsmen with flight and guile time and time again.

Good batsmen, experienced players of spin looked like they were facing hand grenades being thrown from a soldier not a young debutant making his first steps into Test cricket. It was one hell of a way for Devendra Bishoo to say hello to the longest form.

Sure it helped he was on a raging bunsen rather than the type of flat deck more commonly witnessed around the world, sure it helped Misbah Ul-Haq got his footwork all wrong and UDRS saw off two of them. But leg spinners tend to have as many bad days as good ones so this was one of those days.

Quite what it means now is anything. Debutants are a tricky one to gauge, particularly leg spinners. Some do well, some do badly, and some do a Bryce McGain. West Indian has had its fair share of false dawns down the years so they more than any will be caution against hype.

But it’s a start for him at the very least. How he progresses will depend very much on how he is handled by the West Indian selectors. Their history with selections is mixed but with spinners it is dire.

The last promising leg spinner the West Indies produced burst onto the scene quickly too, taking wickets in Test Cricket from the off at a respectable average of around 30 but wound up ending his career at the age of 28. One hopes Bishoo doesn’t wind up the same way as Dinanath Ramnarine but there’s always a fine line between success and failure.

Though he may be new to Test Cricket he looked like he belonged there for years. That’s the wonderful thing about watching someone new and exciting making the world stand up and take notice: the fact that everyone wonders why on earth they weren’t there all along.

Indeed Devendra Bishoo, the new hope for West Indian cricket, looked like he could have been here for years. If he carries on like this he could potentially end up doing just that, which is no bad way to start.

Test cricket: The role of the opener continues to evolve

Chris Gayle smashed 219* on the first day against Sri Lanka

Ask any author about the importance of a good opening and they’ll tell you it is crucial to any written work. It sets the tone, the pace and the spirit of the piece, and getting it right is vital, get it wrong and you’re off on the wrong foot immediately.

The importance of getting the opening right is also a vital part of a cricket innings; it sets the tone, dictates the pace and often determines whether the innings will sink or swim. For some the opening of an innings is an art of survival, a battle of pragmatism and practicality-particularly in England where the ball is liable to swing for longer.

But for others it is a chance to start off with a flyer, to immediately put pressure back on the bowler, the opposition and the captain, seizing the advantage from the off. In the past these examples were used brilliant by the very best in Test cricket, think the Haynes/Greenidge and Langer/Hayden partnerships.

However with the advent of Twenty20, the increasing exposure of Test players to limited overs cricket, the method of the opener has changed as more players are capable of hitting boundaries from the off. Whereas in the past only a few players would play an aggressive opener at the top of their order, now more teams are utilizing such players.

Brendan McCullum shows he can cut it at the top of the order

There were three brilliant examples of this in the past two days with the innings of Virender Sehwag, Brendan McCullum and Chris Gayle. In total the three of them hit 439 runs in 544 balls-a strike rate of 80.69 with 52 fours and 12 sixes-Gayle hitting six of them himself.

Gayle’s innings deserves special acclaim as it came at a time when he was under particular pressure due to losing the captaincy and also his failure to sign a WICB contract, but his was a special innings-the kind we know he is capable of-and he himself has sights on topping his triple century against South Africa next year.

But it was also a big moment for McCullum, who is seeking to prove himself at the top of the New Zealand batting order. Runs would have validated his position, but to do so in the manner which makes him so special is even better news.

Sehwag’s brilliance is simply treated as par for the course, a testament to both his consistency and his prolific appetite for runs. He is a unique and genuinely great player who combines brute strength with fantastic hand-eye co-ordination. What the likes of Gavaskar and Boycott would have made of opening this style is another matter.

The point is not to lavish praise on these talented individuals, all three are ranked among the finest hitters in the world and all had success as openers previously, albeit in McCullum’s case in limited overs form of the game.

But it is rather to mark the evolution of the role of the opening batsmen in Test cricket. Look around the international arena nowadays and almost every team starts with an opener capable of accelerating an innings.

Tamim Iqbal has shown no fear for Bangladesh

Nor is it just the larger teams, more dominant sides, as Bangladesh showed they too boast one in the sparkling talent of Tamim Iqbal who sent England’s attack to all parts both at home and abroad.

Gone are the days when mere survival was enough for an opener, now it is the era of attack as the best form of defence. It’s an evolution brought on by the limited overs game, but also by flat pitches, weaker bowling attacks and better and bigger bats.

All play their part, but ultimately it is also down to the personnel involved. Dashers like McCullum, Gayle and Sehwag have helped move the game on, seizing the advantage and capitalising on any opportunity.

As they’ve shown so brilliant, so hastily and so well, the role of the modern opener is far more than just build a platform for the middle order to thrive; it’s more a crash, bang wallop affair. How times sure have changed.

How Darren Sammy can engineer a West Indies’ revival

Darren Sammy may have been the sensible choice for the West Indies new Test captain, but can he prove he is the right one as they attempt to reverse a downward spiral which has afflicted them for the past decade or so.

The key for Sammy will be patience both what he gets from the WICB and what he gives to his team. After years of stagnation and a level of self-interest from players which has at times been staggering, it will not be an easy task. There will be genuine hope he can restore this once-great cricketing nation to prominence, but if he wants to do so he needs to put things in place to kickstart their revival.

 Start Picking Up the Pace

In their heyday the West Indies had a pace attack which was perhaps unrivalled in cricketing history. Then fast bowler after fast bowler would appear and terrorise Test batsmen, a trend started by Wes Hall right through to the latter days of Curtley Ambrose and Courtney Walsh.

Yet after the departure of those two legends, the drop in quality was understandable but since then there has barely been a pace bowler worth his salt to come through the system. The sight of a West Indies attack led by Darren Powell and Corey Collymore spoke volumes-and this article by Cricinfo highlights how their fortunes have declined.

Key for Sammy will be trying to build up an attack capable of ruffling up some of the better players in the world. He can start with Kemar Roach-a rising star who tormented Ricky Ponting and who will spearhead the attack in Sri Lanka.

Add in the talented, if inconsistent Jerome Taylor and youngsters Nelon Pascal, Brandon Bess and Andre Russell plus the possible return of Fidel Edwards. It may not be an attack like they had years ago, but it could offer something similar to their heyday-genuine pace.

Consistent Selection

Sammy may not have a say on selection, but if he does then he should demand consistency. The key to any team is consistent selection-look how England have thrived in an era of Central Contracts, something which coach Ottis Gibson will be well aware of.

Sammy himself has suffered at the hands of selectors in the past during a stop-start career, but now he must enforce consistency. Team’s gel better, players build up bonds and it will help create a sense of unity which can help them thrive.

Patience is a virtue

Patience, not only with selection, but with Sammy, with young players and even among their supporters, is key. If Sammy has been selected to lead then they need to give him the time to develop and grow into the role. But the same patience also needs to be extended to the team.

With the likes of Gayle, Chanderpaul and Sarwan all approaching the twilight of their careers, there will be an emphasis on younger players to come through. They will need to be patience, to allow them to bed in and develop which will stand them in good stead in the future.

Onwards and upwards….

Everyone knows the West Indies, in terms if raw cricketing talent, will always produce little stars. They’ve had plenty of them down the years, even recently as we’ve seen from the likes of Adrian Barath, Andre Fletcher and Xavier Marshall.

The problem recently has been developing them further. In the past the likes of Marlon Samuels and Dwayne Smith have made waves early in their career but subsequently sank into obscurity.

Both were clearly talented, in Samuels case outrageously so, but they failed to kick-on and develop at a cost to both them and their country. The West Indies must tackle this head on, look at the likes of Barath, Lendl Simmons, Kieran Pollard and Andre Fletcher and look to do all they can to help them. They can be stars-potentially-but they need to continue to develop.

Bring back the passion

Sammy is a good speaker, a thoughtful man, and when he speaks eloquently about passion and the need to rediscover this in the West Indies, one hopes it rings true. The saddest indictment is that one could accuse their players of losing passion for playing for them-especially in light of the contract disputes with key players.

In their heyday the West Indies boasted a team packed with players desparate not only to prove themselves, but to thrive for their country. Sammy needs to make sure that this generation can find that very same motivation, if they are passionate and motivated to play for their country rather than themselves the results could be noticeable.

Tackle Twenty20

The rise of Twenty20 has undoubtedly impacted on cricket, with both good and bad points coming from the fallout of the rapid expansion of cricket’s shortest form.

One of the worst impacts of Twenty20 has been the weakening of national ties, as players see the chance to earn vast sums of money playing in the IPL over the rather less lucrative chance to play for their country.

The West Indies, almost as much as any country, has suffered from this. The sight of Dwayne Bravo, Chris Gayle and Kieran Pollard forsaking national service for the vast riches of the IPL was a sad one, but an indicative one. These also pose different distractions for younger players such as Pollard, whose talent and ability has appeared distorted by the sums of cash for his services.

If Sammy wants to make an impact, he needs to tackle the issue of Twenty20 and it’s impact on his players head on. If he can help restore some equilibrium, recasting Test cricket as the central focus in his players minds, aims and ideals, then it could well work in his favour and help improve their fortunes as international cricketers rather than in their backpockets.

These are no cast-iron, quick fix policies, they are real long-term strategies which the West Indies have lacked recently. It will require support from both the team, the board and Darren Sammy himself.

It is a hard task facing him, and Sri Lanka will be a tough test to start off with, but if the West Indies can begin to make an impact on the cricketing world again, then it will be well worth the effort.