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Serious battle in W/Cup shadow

By By Tony Cozier

OVERSHADOWED, as was their previous meeting in the Caribbean, by a somewhat more important international sporting event, the third series in less than two-and-a-half years between the West Indies and New Zealand carries special significance for the teams all the same.

In 2012, while Usain Bolt, Shelly Ann Fraser, Kirani James, Kishorn Walcott and a host of athletes from the cricketing Caribbean were featuring at the London Olympics, the West Indies were completing a rare, comprehensive triumph over the Black Caps at home.

The roles were identically reversed in the return contest in New Zealand last December and January.

As they face off again in round three, it is the imminent football World Cup that occupies most of the attention, even before it kicks off in Brazil on Thursday. 

By then, the first Test at Sabina Park might well be over; the focus as it gets underway this morning is as much on the special milestone of Jamaica’s favourite cricketer, Chris Gayle’s 100th Test, as on the match itself.

Such distractions are unavoidable. 

Gayle, after all, is “a national icon”, to use the phrase of the Jamaica Cricket Association president Billy Heaven in announcing the various presentations and ceremonies dedicated throughout the match to the eighth West Indian to attain another hundred, adding to the 37 already recorded in 99 Tests, 255 ODIs and 42 Twenty20 Internationals since his first appearance under the burgundy cap in 2000.  

Such celebrations, said Heaven, would “signify to the world how proud we are to have a Chris Gayle”.

Gayle has scotched talk that he intends to retire at the end of the series yet he is one of those whose long-term future is up in the air.

Even as he takes centre stage at Sabina over the coming days, there is lingering concern over a complex back injury that, as he describes it, painfully affects a nerve in his leg. It flared during the recent Indian Premier League (IPL) in India where the consistency of his astonishing power-hitting transformed him into a superhero.

Could that be a sign that the end is near for the 34-year-old, 6ft-2ins man mountain who has pushed his body to the limit with non-stop cricket of every type in all the game’s varied outposts?

It is one of the many questions to be answered in the three Tests that present the respective selectors with the opportunity to assess where they stand.

For the West Indies, with six players in the squad of 14 over 30 and another within weeks of it, Clyde Butts and his panel (and whoever succeeds them later this year) have to decide whether the time has come for a changing of the guard.

In spite of the encouraging returns from the West Indies “A” team in series against their Pakistan, Sri Lankan and, currently, Bangladesh equivalents in the Caribbean and Indians both here and there, they have kept with the time-honoured batting stakeholders and rebooted the stalled careers of several bowlers. 

The only new player introduced to the Test team since New Zealand were last here is Sheldon Cottrell, the strong, aggressive, Jamaican left-armer .   

The main batsmen are now getting on. As with all sportsmen, they carry a sell-by date; the most identifiable are nearing it. 

The ever dependable Shivnarine Chanderpaul is 40, Gayle 34 and Marlon Samuels 33.

As they make their eventual exits, young guns like the dazzling Jamaican Jermaine Blackwood are waiting in the wings. The Tests against Bangladesh in September would be an opportune time to introduce him and others, prior to the real examination of South Africa in December and January.   

Similar criteria apply to the bowling. The attack that new West Indies captain Denesh Ramdin has at his disposal for the New Zealand series carries a distinct stamp of back to the future.

Not one of those used in the last Test against New Zealand in Hamilton last December are in the 14 from whom the final 11 is to be chosen.  

Two of the replacements have been recalled from the relatively distant past, two others are back from physical and technical setbacks. 

Jerome Taylor was decidedly missed during his four and a half years away from Test cricket. On his encouraging performances for Jamaica in the 2014 first-class season, he is back, two weeks short of his 30th birthday, to share the new ball with Kemar Roach. 

Roach himself, spearhead of the attack in his 23 Tests since 2009, was inactive for seven months recovering from a fractured shoulder that required surgery. 

In the circumstances, their form and fitness must now be established in the middle.

Sulieman Benn, the six foot-eight inch beanpole left-armer, now 32, hasn’t played a Test since December 2010. He owes his recall to a couple of productive seasons for Barbados and Veerasammy Permaul’s shortcomings.

The choice of Shane Shillingford comes less than six months after he was directed by the ICC to have his flawed action corrected, for the second time. It is a risk; the psychological effect cannot be underestimated, no matter how strong a character the tall, Dominican off-spinner is.   

The most significant absentees are Dwayne Bravo, eliminated by a shoulder injury sustained in the IPL over a month ago, and Sunil Narine through a combination of the West Indies Cricket Board’s adherence to its recently established “West Indies First” policy and his commitment to his IPL team, Kolkata Knight Riders, that carried him past the June 1 deadline for joining the preparatory camp in Barbados.

Throughout his tenure as captain, Sammy was classified as a phantom all-rounder whose presence unbalanced the 11. Now that he has gone and Bravo is unavailable, there is no all-rounder in the squad, phantom or otherwise. The balance is now further compromised.

For New Zealand, the aim over the coming six weeks is to overcome the discrepancy between their power at home and their weakness away from the south Pacific. 

In March 2013, they came within one wicket of claiming the Test series against England on home territory. They followed their later triumph over the West Indies in December with another over higher ranked India. The away record is the opposite. 

They return clearly stronger than they were two years ago when they were destabilised by internal problems that led to the replacement of Ross Taylor with Brendon McCullum as captain and the exit of John Wright as coach. 

Individual performances recently suggest all that’s now settled. 

Taylor took a special liking to West Indian bowling last December, amassing an unbeaten 217 in the first Test, 129 in the second and 131 in the third. 

McCullum began the international home season with 113 against the West Indies; he ended it with 224 and 302 (a New Zealand record) in the two Tests against India. Kane Williamson, BJ Wattling and Jimmy Neesham were others to compile hundreds against the Indians.

That evidence indicates that they won’t be easily prised out. On unhelpful pitches, their quartet of swing bowlers (Tim Southee, Trent Boult, Neil Wagner and Corey Anderson) along with two spinners (Ish Sodhi and Mark Craig) are likely to find it equally difficult containing the West Indies.

It has the potential to be a close, intriguing series – certainly tighter than some of the simultaneous matches in that other sport in Brazil.

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