Sunday, February 25, 2018

Operation Competitive

WI bid to turn things around Down Under



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ON the face of it, West Indies' recent records in Australia place into numbing context what they might expect on their return for five ODIs and a one-off Twenty 20, the first of which is at the WACA ground in Perth on Friday.

They have not beaten Australia down-under in any matc—Test, ODI or Twenty20—since 1997; the debit sheet for ODIs on the last three trips shows 13 defeats, none by less than 50 runs, one by 216, another by 113, one eight wickets. Even as recently at home in 2008 they crashed in all five ODIs.

Sad stuff, indeed. Yet coach Ottis Gibson and captain Darren Sammy would have recited a few factors to their charges that encourage more hope this time.

But for a last ball brain freeze in St Vincent that turned victory into a tie the last time they met last March, the West Indies would have triumphed 3-2 in the ODIs instead of splitting the contest 2-2.

Since 1999, Australia carried the aura of World Cup champions; no longer. That title was surrendered in India in 2011. They have slipped to No.3 on the ICC rankings at 113 points, just a point above South Africa and three above Sri Lanka.

They are currently going through a period of transition as they seek to assemble a team to regain the World Cup they host in 2015. It has not been straightforward.

They have engaged in a policy of rotation of players, involving the most suitable aspirants from their sizeable bank of up-and-comers. The reason is to protect the most likely from injury; several seem to spend more time on the physiotherapist's table than on the field.

This process of evolution has sent Ricky Ponting and Mike Hussey into retirement, a simultaneous loss of irreplaceable batting quality and vast overall savvy.

Yet another in the string of injuries that have blighted his career has also removed Shane Watson, a crucial allrounder, for the West Indies series—although this is counter-balanced by the West Indies' loss of their most essential batsman, Marlon Samuels, with his seriously damaged eye.

Australia's troubles were starkly revealed by their 5-0 whitewash by their fiercest rivals in the ODIs in England last summer; at home, they have just struggled to share things 2-2 with Sri Lanka.

So, if nothing else, this West Indies squad venture onto Australia territory with more belief than for over a decade; whether this can be converted into results is debatable.

Their position in the ICC rankings remains four places and 25 points short of Australia's. Their most recent 2-1 loss to Bangladesh (two places and 10 points below them) exposed their continuing inconsistency. Given the trouncings they have received in Australia of late, just a competitive performance would be a welcome advance. An overall series success might be carrying it a bit too far; if somehow achieved it would rank not far behind the World Twenty20 victory in Sri Lanka last October in the long-term scheme of things.

Far more realistically, it presents the selectors with an early opportunity to assess the strongest candidates for the build-up to the World Cup three years hence, the next assignment Down Under.

They would be aware of how those with prior experience can contend with the distinctive conditions, the pace and bounce so different to the slow, shin-high spin of Bangladesh.

Chris Gayle is a regular visitor, for West Indies and whatever Big Bash outfit has him on its books. With such local knowledge, his general experience and as destructive opener, he is the team's most vital component.

Kieron Pollard's times in the Big Bash are also plus for the big, power-hitter but he had made his mark before then when he (along with Dwayne Smith) was the leading batsman in one-sided 2010 series. For all his reputation in the Twenty20 version, he yearns to prove himself in the longer formats. Here's another chance.

Through different ailments, Ramnaresh Sarwan and Dwayne Bravo missed the ODIs in Australia since 2005. Both are now back with the aim of re-establishing themselves in a batting order needing their years at international level, especially in Samuels' absence.

On the evidence of his struggles in the recent Caribbean Twenty20 tournament, Sarwan carries general worries over whether he has been recalled too soon, without time to settle back into the demands of international cricket and the environment of a team management which had been openly disparaging.

The elder Bravo, back again as vice-captain, remains a fine and ebullient cricketer, more so these days as a batsman. Approaching 30, he will establish in the coming year or so whether he can finally develop into the allrounder promised in his first appearance on the international stage eight years ago.

When Sammy was last in Australia, in 2009, he was a peripheral member of the squad. He has now been captain for over two years, credited, along with Gibson, of stimulating an effective culture of hard work and discipline.

The time is approaching when overall results, his own and the team's, will count more.

Australia is where Kemar Roach made his global reputation with his hostile pace in the 2009 Tests. He is now spearhead of an attack with a more mellow, and patently better, Tino Best in support. The 21-year-old long fellow, Jason Holder joins them on his first major tour.

It is a pity that Shannon Gabriel, tall, strong and truly fast, is not there with them to make life more uncomfortable for Australian batsmen. His time cannot be far off.

Holder is one of six sampling Australia for the first time. Sunil Narine's time has been confined to the Big Bash Twenty20 frolic where the mystery of his each-way spin was carefully examined by those he is to oppose in Australia's green and gold.

In these rapidly moving times, the West Indies' stay is just a couple of weeks and is confined to the white ball game. Yet, newcomers Keiran Powell, Johnson Charles, Daren Bravo, Andre Russell and the fancied wicketkeeper Devon Thomas should have no trepidation enjoying a country where the game remains strong.

As it always was and, no doubt, always will be, Powell and the young Bravo, two elegant and clearly talented left-handers, and the other batsmen are sure to be tested by surfaces that respond to pace and bounce to which they are unaccustomed.

They can be sure that the pitches, if not the bowlers, can be trusted.

Now it's up to them to show their worth.