Thursday, February 22, 2018

No room for error for champs

This doesn’t happen very often, so let’s make the most of it.

It was eight years ago that the West Indies last went into a global cricket tournament as defending champions. Then, under the leadership of Brian Lara, who was also at the helm for the pulsating two-wicket victory over hosts England in the 2004 decider at The Oval in London, the Caribbean side advanced to the final in India before being steamrolled by Ricky Ponting’s Australian side in an anti-climactic showpiece at the Brabourne Stadium in Mumbai.

With his team having fallen flat at the critical moment, Lara alluded to “stage fright” as a possible explanation for the West Indies’ poor showing on the night as they were routed for just 138 batting first with the Aussies romping to the paltry target for the loss of just two wickets. Now though, as Darren Sammy’s men fine-tune preparations in defence of the World T20 crown, there is little chance of the St Lucian escaping unscathed if he were to even attempt a similar explanation should results not go as hoped during the 16-day competition in Bangladesh.

This is not the 50-overs-per-side stuff as it was then but the 20-over variety, the form of the game that seems tailormade for the particular strengths (and weaknesses, it has to be admitted) of contemporary regional cricketers. Most of them have been on the big stages and under the glare of the floodlights so often in so many different competitions over the past five years or so that unfamiliarity with the big occasion should not be an issue this time around.

Chris Gayle is the most celebrated big-hitter on the T20 stage. Sunil Narine took the Kolkata Knight Riders to their first Indian Premier League title in his debut season in 2012 and remains a mesmerising match-winner in this form of the game. Dwayne Bravo is an integral member of a Chennai Super Kings franchise that has been consistently the most successful in the IPL since joining them from the Mumbai Indians in 2011.

The other Dwayne in the West Indies squad, Smith, proved a match-winner for the Mumbai Indians on more than one occasion as they lifted their first IPL title at the expense of perennial finalists Chennai. Sammy’s first taste of IPL cricket with the Sunrisers of Hyderabad saw the St Lucian propelling his franchise to the playoffs. And so on, and so on...

Of course, with the exception of Krishmar Santokie, Sheldon Cottrell and Andre Fletcher, the West Indies squad now in Bangladesh and priming for Sunday’s showdown with India in Mirpur were all in Colombo 18 months earlier where the team stunned all of Sri Lanka in pulling off what proved to be a pretty comfortable victory in the end. But for the injury to Kieron Pollard that has kept him out of action since the end of last year, the power-hitting all-rounder would have been yet another of the stellar acts in the West Indies line-up. So it remains to be seen who will fill the considerable breach left by his absence.

Following last week’s 2-1 series victory over England in Barbados, which followed a 2-1 loss to the same opponents in a One-Day International series the previous week in Antigua, it’s noticeable how optimistic everyone seems to be about the West Indies’ chances in the world event. But moods change around here as rapidly as yesterday’s weather, when a steamy, sweltering morning was followed by torrential rainy-season type showers along the East-West Corridor, only for the sunshine to burst through again by mid-afternoon.

So, will India, the inaugural winners of the tournament in 2007 and a very formidable side in their own right, rain on the West Indians’ parade come Sunday? In a game so swift and unpredictable as T20, with such a narrow margin for error, anything is well and truly possible, even a deciding Super Over.

West Indies have two warm-up matches – against England tomorrow in Fatullah and against Sri Lanka on Wednesday in Mirpur – before the actual competition begins. Keep in mind as well that India are due to face arch-rivals Pakistan on the opening day of the competition proper on Friday, so they could either be on a high or, possibly more dangerously, in an early must-win situation when they take on the defending champions two days later.

Unless something really dramatic happens in those warm-up matches, I’m looking at a final West Indies eleven for the first game against India as follows: Sammy, Gayle, Smith, Marlon Samuels, Lendl Simmons, Bravo, Denesh Ramdin, Andre Russell, Sunil Narine, Samuel Badree and Krishmar Santokie.

Santokie, the clever Jamaican left-arm medium pacer, gets the nod ahead of the experienced international Ravi Rampaul given the expectation that India’s top strokemakers – Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, Suresh Raina and not forgetting, of course, skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni – will prefer more pace on the ball than the change-ups offered by Santokie.

Then again, it could come down to who the selectors feel can cope with the big occasion, and we saw yesterday how both Afghanistan and Hong Kong (this should really be called a Pakistan “B” team) crumbled on the big stage at the start of the preliminary round yesterday.

In a group that also includes Australia, Pakistan and more than likely Bangladesh, there’s really no room for a poor match, and the West Indies will need all of that talent and big-game experience, individually and collectively, from the very first ball on Sunday.