Monday, January 22, 2018

Things to be thankful for


STRONG MAN: West Indies captain Darren Sammy

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Darren Sammy wants to go home to his beautiful wife and kids. Some stubborn people would like him to do just that and stay there. Can't agree with them. But the West Indies captain does deserve every bit of rest he can get, for it has been another punishing year of international cricket.

For the peongs, their appetite for watching the game insatiable, there is no such thing as too much cricket. Except, that is, if you are a player yourself, having to push tired and strained joints and muscles beyond the comfort zone in order to do your professional duty. Think too about the wives, children and dependent relatives who have to do without their loved ones for most of the year while they satisfy the public's demand for entertainment. Those are great sacrifices to make. Sometimes they come with negative consequences. But making them is a man's individual choice and of course, he is being handsomely paid for his efforts.

The pressure the captain of the West Indies team has to absorb however, is even greater; especially when that skipper is Darren Sammy.

It bemuses me, the passionate and determined opposition the fellow continues to receive, in spite of the kind of 2012 his team has had. The Windies may still be keeping company with Bangladesh and New Zealand at the bottom of the ICC's Test rankings and be mid-table in one-day internationals, but they will end the year as World Twenty20 champions and as of yesterday, were No. 2 and just five points adrift of Sri Lanka in that format. That T20 achievement alone—representing the first global title for the West Indies since the Champions Trophy success of 2004—made the year one to remember.

Your preference may not be T20s, mine is not. But that victory was testimony to the progress the Windies as a unit have made over the last 12 months. Much of that progress is down to the manner in which Sammy and coach Ottis Gibson have gone about their business.

When Sammy took over from Chris Gayle in 2010, the hurdles were considerable. The principal one was to get players to accept a greater work ethic and to commit to achieving the objectives set out by management. The lowering in standards over the past decade-and-a-half would have made such a shift in culture fraught with difficulty; with failure a real possibility. But Sammy has had the courage and determination to buy into Gibson's philosophy and to carry it out. It has been a battle that has produced some scars no doubt.

The exile for over a year of as popular and as dynamic a player as Gayle—in acrimonious circumstances to boot—would not have made Sammy's job easier, even though he was not directly a player in that drama. Sammy, the fringe player who became captain, did not seem to stand up to comparison to the heavy hitting Gayle, whose play took on even more force once he became skipper. The further controversies involving Gibson and other team stalwarts like Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Ramnaresh Sarwan—again not directly involving Sammy—would nevertheless have cast a shadow, because he was now part of management—Gibson's lieutenant on the field.

Sammy of course also had his own problems. He had been a fringe player because neither his batting nor his bowling had been compelling enough to make him a fixture. Now he had to be the leader of a struggling team and raise his own game. If his leadership was to have any legitimacy in the dressing room, he had to lead by example. And despite his positive nature and optimistic outlook, it could not have been pleasant to have people within cricket and in the public in general, questioning your right to be in the team, far less lead it.

There were signs last year, especially with his bowling where he took 30 Test wickets, that Sammy was beginning to find his feet as a player.

And starting with the limited overs and Test series against Australia this year, the skipper has continued to carry his load. Sammy will finish the year having averaged 32.57 in ten Tests with the bat and 31.18 in 17 ODIs. Compare that with 2011 when in those formats, he averaged 18.05 and 12.47 and the improvement is clear. Included in those Test numbers of course, was his first century during the series against England.

Still playing his natural game, he batted with more discipline and patience and was duly rewarded. And Sammy's late-order hitting in the one-dayers and T20s was sometimes game-turning. Just think about his 60 not out against Bangladesh in the fourth ODI that took West Indies from a hopeless position to 211 for nine, a total they were able to defend. In the Bangladesh chase, his burst of two wickets in his first over was crucial to the successful defence.

The skipper's bowling in general was not nearly as effective as in 2011, but he was still a player on the improve. As a captain, he handled himself with grace and led his team with great spirit and energy.

Others excelled more than him. Marlon Samuels was a sparkling match-winner in all three formats and Shivnarine Chanderpaul piled up 987 runs (average 98.70) in Tests to be as reliable as ever in the middle order. Gayle made his presence felt everywhere upon his return, except against Bangladesh. Denesh Ramdin counted two Test centuries on his return to the team, averaged 42.87 and kept solidly; Sunil Narine was an outstanding addition in limited overs play; Kemar Roach came to the fore as a fast bowler with 39 Test wickets, and Tino Best, given another chance in the Bangladesh Tests, twice proved himself a match-winner and made a world record 95 for a No. 11, batting against England in May. In that collection were stories of players emerging from bad times to excel. They were tales similar to those of the captain.

In microcosm, Sammy's story was the story of the West Indies team in 2012. It was not always pretty and had its periods of disappointment. There is also still much work to do to eliminate the elements of cricketing indiscipline that still exist, as seen in the Bangladesh ODIs. But ultimately, the captain and his comrades thrived despite the pressure. Despite their limitations.

For four consecutive Test wins; a T20 world title and some promising cricket besides, they have earned their time at home. And our thanks.