Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Horses for courses?


Hundredth test: Chris Gayle

Mark Fraser

Eighteen overs of spin in the first two hours at Sabina Park yesterday. Why? Is the combination of Sulieman Benn, Shane Shillingford and Marlon Samuels so outstanding? Conversely, are the fast bowling options, in this case Jerome Taylor, Kemar Roach (who made the final 11), Jason Holder and Shannon Gabriel (who were left out) so deficient? Or was it just a horses-for-courses decision based on a pitch that all the experts agreed was going to be so good for batting that whoever won the toss would have had no hesitation in batting first?

Maybe it’s a combination of all of the above, although it’s a little difficult to accept that all these bland surfaces across the Caribbean for international cricket are an inevitability of prolonged usage and are not at least specifically prepared to make the home side more competitive and also to ensure that matches extend to a fifth day.

During the Nagico Super50 in February and the NGC T20 Cricket Festival at the end of last month, there were pitches that offered considerable assistance to the fast bowlers, challenging the batsmen to show a bit of skill, technique and maybe even some courage rather than the usual limited-over modus operandi of planting the front foot down the pitch and swinging in every possible direction.

Yet in a week’s time, when the second Test is scheduled to begin at the same Queen’s Park Oval, will the pitch be as brown, as bare and as apparently lifeless as what we have here in Kingston? It may serve to prolong the cricket in pursuit of commercial considerations, but how does an elongation of the tedious cricket in the first session yesterday advance the cause of West Indies cricket?

Surely the idea must be that, if the Caribbean side is to be consistently more competitive at home and away with a view towards gradually moving up the international rankings, they have got to be able to cope with surfaces that are more sporting. A little pace and bounce, a little bit of live grass left on the pitch (not rolled up in any pieces of paper before anyone gets the wrong idea about voodoo and other things!) does so much for cricket, both as a spectacle and a challenge to the player.

Bowlers, fast and slow, are encouraged because spinners, especially tall ones like Benn and Shillingford, rely on bounce as much as turn. Batsmen, if they’re good enough, relish the opportunity to take on the pacers who indulge in the short stuff or waste no time ripping into tweakers who stray from a good line and length.

Bottom line: good pitches make not only for good cricket but also force cricketers to either improve their techniques or make way for better, more adaptable players waiting in the wings for their chances to come. Does anyone really believe that the West Indies will be able to cope with South African bowlers and pitches at the end of the year and Australian ones next year, both at the World Cup and in the subsequent Test series, by showing competitiveness on what is little more than rolled mud against New Zealand now and then Bangladesh after the Caribbean Premier League?

Two other points from the start of this three-match series: If Chris Gayle is not fully fit, why is he playing, and why does the omission of Sunil Narine from consideration for the entire series automatically trigger the perception of an anti-Trini sentiment within the bowels of the West Indies Cricket Board, or at least among the selection panel headed by Clyde Butts?

Basically the answer to both questions delves into the issue of what is more important, the player or the game? We’ve seen fairly recent evidence in cricket of the player given prominence over all else, the pappyshow Test matches that the West Indies happily contributed to in India last November being all about giving Sachin Tendulkar a farewell in his home country, his home city and allow him to complete 200 Test matches at the same time.

Would Gayle be playing if this weren’t his 100th Test in his own backyard? If not, why should such sentiment be allowed to prevail? No-one is suggesting that Kraigg Brathwaite, an unattractive plodder at the best of times, is an obvious replacement for the hard-hitting Jamaican. But what message is being sent when senior players are given the sort of latitude that would not be offered to an emerging talent?

And the Narine issue? Look, if the WICB is going to maintain a hard-and-fast policy of player availability from now on, fine. But if there is vacillation to follow, if other players are going to benefit from the bligh that Narine hasn’t gotten, then it’s going to be real old mas’...again.