Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Early lessons for Pooran

FOR a host of reasons, it was just what makes Twenty20 cricket as universally popular as it is.

Thursday’s CPL match at Guyana’s Providence Stadium between the Guyana Amazon Warriors and the Red Steel (controversially minus the Trinidad and Tobago prefix) was the first of the four for the season scheduled to be played out under lights. As was obvious in 2013, it is the environment that properly fits the format. 

It was a thriller of unpredictable fluctuations throughout with an unlikely twist at the end. After 20 overs, there was still no winner; scores were level at 118 each, forcing the ‘Super Over’, cricket’s approximation of football’s penalty shootout, to break the deadlock. It wasn’t decided until Sunil Narine, the Trinidadian spin magician clothed in the green and gold of Guyana, conjured up five balls of a final, unprecedented wicket-maiden to his teenaged countryman Nicholas Pooran to make the count for the Amazon Warriors two matches, two wins and to register Red Steel’s first loss in two.

Significantly, the noisily packed stands waved their flags and shouted themselves hoarse in support of the Warriors, among whom were two New Zealanders, a Pakistani, three Trinidadians and a Jamaican. The political wrangling that marked the Red Steel issue did not concern them. 

Quite apart from the play itself, there were tactical decisions enough to keep the fans constantly engaged. They applied mostly to Red Steel captain Dwayne Bravo. Seemingly on a hunch, he chose Fidel Edwards’ outswing and Sulieman Benn’s left-arm spin as his first-up bowlers as he set out to protect his team’s unsatisfactory total. 

His usual first-up call is  Samuel Badree, the skiddy, wicket-to-wicket phantom leg-spinner, whose control of line and length has propelled him to No.1 on the ICC’s Twenty20 bowling rankings.  It was a gamble that was abandoned after Benn went for 10 in his first over; Badree replaced him and needed just five balls to strike, dispatching the Pakistani opener Mohammed Hafeez by his standard method, lbw on the front foot.

He followed by removing the left-handers Leon Johnson, lbw on the backfoot, and the New Zealander Jimmy Neesham, swiftly stumped by Pooran as he dragged his toe over the line searching for a straight ball delivered on the angle. His final figures were 4-1-18-2; not for nothing had he earned his elevated ranking. 

More dubious were Bravo’s decisions for the ‘Super Over’.

The bowler he handed the ball to was the tall medium-pacer Kevon Cooper. Badree was posted to the outfield; even with the dew that rendered the ball slippery and difficult to grip, he was surely the better option. Cooper dug his first ball in short and was duly slapped over square-leg for six by Barnwell. It was an immediate body blow. Yet 11 off the over was hardly overwhelming. The decision to send Pooran to take strike against Narine in the decisive final over was more debatable.

Pooran is a precocious 18-year-old left-hander who first came to wider notice on the same ground last year when he plundered 52 off 27 balls against the same opposition, Narine and all. His 143 off 160 balls against Australia in the Under-19 World Cup in the Emirates in February was rated the innings of the tournament. If he cannot be properly assessed until he is exposed to more and longer cricket, the early evidence is that his obvious talent makes him the West Indies’ most exciting young batting prospect since Ramnaresh Sarwan.   

He came to the middle on Thursday night with Red Steel 64 for five after 13.5 overs, throttled by the contrasting spin of Mohammed Hafeez’s off-breaks, Narine’s mystifying all-sorts and Veerasammy Permaul’s left-arm variations. 

Nasir Jamshed, out first ball  in Grenada, ran himself out after three; the formidable middle-order of New Zealand’s Ross Taylor and the Bravo brothers contributed five runs between them.

Pooran filled the breach and greeted his first ball, off the lively New Zealander Jimmy Neesham, with a confident stride forward and a free swing of the bat. The ball came to earth several yards beyond the long-off boundary.

There were two more sixes and a couple of fours, one each off Narine. He outscored the renowned big-hitting Irishman Kevin O’Brien 37 to eight; when he skied a catch off the nagging left-armer Krishmar Santokie, he had received just 17 balls.

 The change in his bouncy body language as he walked off showed he realised he had fallen nine balls short of completing his mission. A catch to dismiss Ramdin off Cooper and his lightning stumping that accounted for Neesham off Badree restored the spring in his step and the decibels in his appeals as the Amazon Warriors slipped to 56 for six in the tenth over.

It is a proven, age-old cricketing adage that the game can carry you to the clouds and, when you least expect it, just as certainly toss you back to earth with a bump. Pooran now experienced it for the first time at such a level, surely not the last.

The Amazon Warriors, powered by their captain Christopher Barnwell’s 37 and stands that increasingly recognised the possibility of the improbable, arrived at the last ball of the 20 with three runs to win, two to force the ‘Super Over’.

Dwayne Bravo banged it into the pitch. The No.11 Ronsford Beaton, the slim Guyanese, swung fiercely and the ball climbed off the chunky edge higher and higher into the night sky until it all but disappeared from view. 

Pooran settled himself for an eternity for the catch that would win the match; all eyes were on him as the ball finally descended from the clouds— and landed with a bump on the ground. 

In a few seconds, Pooran’s confidence had likewise plummeted from the skies back to ground. Amidst the tension, he did not lay a glove on it as the last pair had time to complete the two that required the ‘Super Over’.

Within a few minutes, the pressure would again be on Pooran’s slender shoulders and shaken self-esteem. Seemingly based on his dominant batting earlier, not least his approach to Narine, he was handed the responsibility of going in with Ross Taylor, the seasoned New Zealander, and taking first strike in the ‘Super Over’. The Bravo brothers, both with stronger credentials for the job, nervously watched from beyond the boundary.

Confronted by such a young, inexperienced batsman with his mind scrambled by recent events, the wily Narine offered nothing to hit. His pace was up, his trajectory flat, his line off-stump spinning away. Pooran missed four balls, finally connecting with the fifth ball to be caught in the deep; by then it was over.

It was a memorable match for the thousands at the Stadium and those watching globally on television. For Nicholas Pooran, it was an important early lesson in what promises to be a lengthy career.