Saturday, February 24, 2018

Case for the defence


Runs in vain: West Indies' batsman Chris Gayle, right, swings through the leg-side as Australia's wicketkeeper Matthew Wade watches during their ICC Twenty20 Cricket World Cup match in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Saturday. —Photo: AP

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Spectacular attack without a solid defence invariably leads to failure.

Saturday's rain-affected loss to Australia doesn't automatically mean that the West Indies can no longer be counted among the favourites to lift the World T20 trophy. What it does though is make a mockery of all this hyped tripe about the big, bad ball-beaters from the Caribbean bludgeoning all before them on the way to the title in Sri Lanka.

Assuming they get past Ireland today and confirm a spot in the Super Eights, the experience at the Premadasa Stadium 48 hours earlier represents a timely reminder that cricket, like most competitive sports, is not one-dimensional. Having some of the most dangerous hitters in your line-up may guarantee entertainment for the fans and a formidable total on the scoreboard, but don't expect it to ensure too many victories if your bowlers are likely to get a worse caning.

This hardly qualifies as an earth-shattering revelation, especially as the West Indies have been down this road many times before, not least in the very first match of the inaugural World T20 five years ago.

Then, as now, it was a case of Chris Gayle leading the charge, pulverising his way to a 117 off just 57 balls against South Africa in Johannesburg with the West Indies, led at the time by Ramnaresh Sarwan, posting a total of 205 for six batting first. What should have been an imposing challenge for the hosts turned out to be a canter at the end with an unbeaten 90 from Herschelle Gibbs ensuring that the Proteas romped to their target with more than two overs to spare.

Of the regional side's bowlers who gushed runs to the scything South African blades then, only Daren Powell was not part of the attack (and I use that word only nominally) that endured a similar experience against the Australians, even if they may wish to delude themselves with the belief that they were quite capable of pegging Shane Watson and company back in the latter half of the innings in defence of what appeared to be a match-winning total of 191 for eight.

When the rains swept across the ground, George Bailey's side had already made mas' with Darren Sammy's bowlers to the extent that they needed another 92 runs off a possible 65 deliveries with nine wickets in hand. But if people want to believe that it's the Australians who were saved by the intervention of the elements, so be it.

It's often said that attack is the best form of defence, an adage most often associated with football. Yet even with all the wizardry and lethal striking talent available, you still have to be reasonably competent in protecting your own goal. Just ask the Brazilians of 1982.

That was a side overflowing with creative and attacking options: Zico, Socrates, Falcao, Eder. Yet for all their glorious, flowing football that lit up the World Cup finals in Spain, all it took was the goal-poacher supreme in the shape of Paolo Rossi to three times expose a suspect defence and leave Brazilian dreams in tatters while Italy were lifting the trophy two games later in Madrid.

So it's about finding the balance, and head coach Ottis Gibson now has to consider the available options in bolstering the West Indies "defensive" armoury without significantly compromising the batting phalanx that is the obvious strength of this side. Alternatively, he may just want to believe those 9.1 overs delivered on Saturday represented an aberration and that the bowling combination deserves at least one more opportunity to prove its collective worth against the Irish.

Any hint of complacency today though could prove fatal, for even if Ireland were manhandled by the Australians in the first encounter of Group B last Wednesday, they have shown enough in recent world tournaments to suggest that, with a little luck and against a team daring to take them lightly, an upset is certainly not out of the question. But again, assuming all goes to plan back at the Premadasa today and the West Indies make it to the last eight, they must entertain some other bowling options for the matches against England, Sri Lanka and New Zealand in the next phase, beginning on Thursday with a showdown with the English in Pallekele.

Of the quartet who missed out on the opening fixture — Lendl Simmons, Darren Bravo, Andre Russell and Samuel Badree — Russell shapes up as the likeliest prospect for inclusion in any reworked final eleven. Apart from what he offers with his fast-medium bowling, we have seen enough of his explosive and powerful striking of the ball when given the opportunity over the last year-and-a-half to suggest that the potency of the batting line-up will not be diminished if he comes in for a bowler (Ravi Rampaul?) or a batsman (Johnson Charles?).

Samuel Badree has one of the best economy rates in the world when all forms of T20 cricket are taken into the account. But he is relatively new to the senior international level, having made his West Indies debut in the two T20's against New Zealand at the end of June in Florida, and Caribbean selectors have been disinclined anyway to pick two specialist spinners in their teams in the modern era.

Whatever the options, and even if none are exercised, West Indies have been given an early warning that batting power alone is not sufficient to be crowned World T20 champions.