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New year, new hope for WI cricket

By Tony Cozier

WEST INDIES cricket in 2012 could at last swap the fixed frown of despair that had long since been its troubling trademark for the semblance of a smile.

It was not the full-fledged, confident sort once typical of the dominant champions of earlier eras. It has been scarred too deeply for the better part of two decades for the mood to so suddenly and completely change.

Some old problems remain. Off the field, two costly court claims by the West Indies Players Association (WIPA) against the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) have carried into the new year; on it, the inability to capitalise on strong positions lingers.

Yet these are diminished by encouraging performances at several levels, and key developments in administration, principally the simultaneous exits of the constantly warring chief executives, Ernest Hiliare of the WICB, Dinanath Ramnarine of the WICB that have brought a period of welcome peace.

The smile is unmistakable. It hints at hope for further advances.

The year's laugh was loudest and the abandon wildest in the middle of Premadasa Stadium in Colombo and throughout the Caribbean and beyond on October 7 as the West Indies beat the field in the game's newest, shortest and modest popular ICC championship, the World Twenty20.

The Trinidad Express accurately captured the effect; the victory, it wrote, "lifted the spirit of the entire region as one". Not for eight years, since the 2004 triumph in the Champions Trophy, had that been so.

Paul Newman of the London Daily Mail wrote that it "brought hope of a long-awaited Caribbean revival". The sentiment was the same after the 2004 final. It proved a false expectation.

Such a revival depends on consistency in all versions, more especially Tests. Returns in the ten contested in 2012 were promising, if not emphatic, following a decade and a half of whitewashes, two and three day defeats, double-figure totals, captaincy changes, strikes and threats of strikes and much disruptive bickering.

There were four successive victories, on either side of the T20 celebrations, two each over New Zealand at home and Bangladesh away. Both teams might languish below the West Indies in the nether regions of the points table, but it was a start. Not since 1996 had they defeated New Zealand in a Test, far less a series.

Not unexpectedly, they fell to Australia, the No.4, and England, No.1, both by two Tests with the other drawn. Still, only one match failed to carry into the scheduled fifth day (England won at Trent Bridge late on the fourth day), a detail that, in the context of recent history, was confirmation that they were becoming competitive.

Australian coach Mickey Arthur commented that they had "gone toe-to-toe with us, haven't taken a step backwards and provided us with some stern resistance". Only rarely could such an assertion be previously supported.

There were 15 hundreds spread among seven different batsmen in the ten Tests; in the same number of matches in 2011, there had been seven, among just three players. And, fluke or no fluke, there was Tino Best's rousing 95 against England, a world record for a No.11 bat.

There were a couple of usual suspects.

Shivnarine Chanderpaul inevitably kept churning out the runs in his 38th year (987 runs, average 98.7, a double and two single hundreds), while Chris Gayle made an immediate impact on return after the end of his prolonged standoff with the WICB.

His 150 and unbeaten 64 in his first Test back underpinned the victory over New Zealand in Antigua; he had been to the fore earlier in the two T20 and first two ODI wins.

The success of others was less expected, more significant.

The born-again Marlon Samuels was unquestionably the batsman of the year - 898 runs, average 86.5, a double and two single hundreds in Tests in addition to similar ascendancy in the One-day versions.

The final fulfillment of long dormant class after two years' absence through the ICC suspension for dealings with an alleged Indian bookmaker was a tribute to his determination and an example to others. He brought a new strength, and an awesome striking power, to an uncertain middle order.

Captain Darren Sammy continued to disregard the persistent questions over his position, and got on with the job he was appointed to do. His maiden Test hundred against England at Trent Bridge, and his role as player and leader in the World T20 final, earned him new respect.

Denesh Ramdin was another whose place was under increasing public scrutiny, as much for his batting as his keeping. His hundreds against England and Bangladesh relieved the pressure.

More heartening for the long term was the development of the young brigade, those in their early-20s on whose progress the future lies.

Darren Bravo's modest stats against Australia and England and the setback of injury that eliminated him against New Zealand gave way in Bangladesh to his form of the previous year that identifies him as such a vital part of the coming generation.

Kieran Powell, a left-hander of equally classical style, finally realised the value of scores in three, rather than two, figures. He was carried along in Gayle's slipstream to his maiden hundred, 134 in an opening partnership of 254 against New Zealand; two Tests later in Bangladesh, he joined the elite company of Headley, Walcott, Weekes, Sobers, Kanhai, Rowe, Greenidge and Lara as West Indians with hundreds in each innings of a Test. The trick for him and Bravo now is to carry on as the others all did.

While Shane Shillingford became the first West Indian spinner since Lance Gibbs to snare ten wickets in a Test (against Australia before his home crowd in Roseau), the bowling depended on the traditional West Indian strength of pace. It will always be so.

Just as Bravo and Powell carry hopes for future runs, so does Kemar Roach for wickets. His 39 in seven Tests were earned mainly from controlled pace; there would have been a few more but for his aversion to the front-foot no-ball regulation.

Only Pakistan's Saeed Ajmal and South Africa's Vernon Philander among the year's leading ten wicket-takers claimed theirs cheaper than Roach's 22.25 each.

When a wonky ankle kept Roach at home, Best and Fidel Edwards were the match-winners in Bangladesh.

Best, as much as Samuels, was the comeback story of the year. Aged 31 and with 28 expensive wickets in 14 Tests between 2004 and 2009, his erratic career appeared over to all but Best himself.

He proclaimed the England tour as "the rebirth of Tino"; he proved it was not simply braggadocio with 18 wickets in four Tests at 16.27 each. And, of course, there was that 95.

The 'A' team, whose 2-1 result in the four-day series over India 'A' in the Caribbean in June, and the High Performance Centre's tour of Bangladesh in September, revealed two young men of sizeable physique, sharp pace and clear potential. Delorn Johnson and Sheldon Cotterell, both left-armers, are awaiting their opportunity.

The pointed question is whether they and others of their generation will have the proper stage to – in the modern jargon – "showcase their talent". Abbreviated cricket won't be enough to keep West Indian cricket smiling.

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