Liam Camps | 4:55pm gmt 12 Mar 2008
With another testing series against Sri Lanka ahead, the West Indies selectors are back to work to earn their ample wages. The search is on for the eleven men who can compete for five days at a time and reverse a humiliating trend of mediocrity. Thus far the selectors have named a squad of fifteen players in preparation for the first Test. But the only firm selection decision as yet is the confirmation of Chris Gayle to the West Indies captaincy. An unfortunate consequence of his injury, the move resigns Ramnaresh Sarwan to the role of deputy again. And in many expert circles, the permanent induction of Gayle is believed correct. There were enough positives to be drawn from Gayle's leadership on the most recent trip to South Africa.
West Indies lost the series 2-1, but achieved an historic win in the first Test, their first on South African soil and the first against quality opposition in seven long years. But after the heights of such success, the team floundered to their traditional station and were comfortably beaten in the subsequent matches. The usual questions were asked of the discipline and application of the players, but from the start West Indies punched above its weight, and the gap in quality between the sides was ultimately made prominent in the series scoreline. Beforehand, previous experiences in South Africa suggested little joy for West Indies, though the cast of characters selected for the series hardly inspired confidence of a reversal of form. Inexperienced and unproven Brenton Parchment was picked and tossed in at the deep end, while Daren Ganga and Pedro Collins, though experienced, were included in the squad despite a severe lack of match practice. It was a continued display of misunderstanding of effective player management, epitomized by the disdainful attitude toward spin.
Admittedly, for the tour, the selectors saw the merits of including spin bowling in their plans. And they picked a specialist legspinner alongside the traditional bevy of fast bowling hopefuls. Unfortunately, as it turned out, that selection was Rawl Lewis, known neither for prolific spin nor wicket-taking at first-class level. It was a baffling selection for several reasons, the least being Lewis' bowling average of 225 in South Africa. But such left-field selections have been all too common in West Indies cricket of recent years, and simply cannot be attributed to innovation nor forward-thinking of any kind. At 33, Lewis had already had his moment in the sun and was exposed as woefully substandard and inadequate to the needs of a struggling cricket nation. Yet he was selected for such a difficult series, essentially noted as the best-suited spinner to contribute to West Indian success. This given the presence of a number of younger and more potent contenders dominating the regional game.
It is truly bizarre that the same selectors would choose any number of promising young fast bowlers and throw them to the demons of Test cricket, but hesitate to select a spin bowler unless he has given years upon years of service to the regional game. Stating the obvious, it is a lack of faith in the ability of spin bowlers in the Caribbean and a belief that fast bowling is the key to a revisiting of past glories. But as pitches across the region get slower and lower, such ideals are exposed to be outdated and senseless. Still the bowling talent is identified in the athletic and raw fast bowlers, while the thoughtful expertise of promising spinners is mishandled or overlooked. The last specialist spinner to receive consistent faith from the selectors was Dinanath Ramnarine, though his was an outstanding debut series to achieve such respect. And even so, he was dropped at the first sign of poor form and ultimately muscled out of the team permanently by politics, a year after he took 20 wickets in a series against India. The subsequent spin experiments have been weak and underwhelming. Ramnarine's successor, Mahendra Nagmoootoo was useful without extending to effective, and later Omari Banks looked a boy in man's apparel while he surrendered 204 runs in his debut innings against Australia.
Back in 2001 a left-arm chinaman bowler named Dave Mohammed debuted for Trinidad and Tobago against West Indies 'B'. He took 8 for 60 in a match-turning performance and trumpeted the arrival of a genuine talent. In the same match he was outbowled still by Ramnarine, who was on his way to a final West Indies recall and a career-best series against the touring Indians. From that point Mohammed has moved from strength to strength and proceeded to take 48 wickets in 14 domestic matches when he earned a callup to the West Indies squad touring South Africa in 2004. He debuted in the third Test at Cape Town, and counted Jacques Rudolph and Neil McKenzie among his first three victims. But over the next two years Mohammed received four Test caps and he only once played consecutive Test matches, in Pakistan in 2006-07. In his five Tests the legspinner averages a poor 51.38 and can find no place in the team. But in a similar time frame fast bowlers Daren Powell and Fidel Edwards have combined for 55 Tests and both average close to 45. Even in light of similar mediocrity, these pace prospects are treated with sufficient respect and leniency to confirm them as Test regulars. They are endorsed and encouraged to find their feet at Test level and establish themselves as worthy of the faith shown in them. But in the life of a spinner, seen also in the case of Lewis, there are oceans between rare the first chance and elusive second chance, and no recent precedent of consistent selection in the team.
Though the various pace combinations of recent years have folded at the challenge of taking 20 wickets per Test, there seems little thought to even consider spinners for the role. This in mind, spin bowlers have dominated cricket in the region, taking the lion's share of wickets and continuing to improve outstanding first-class records. In fact, although it is entirely impractical, if the West Indies team was selected purely on performance in domestic cricket, the entire attack would comprise of spinners. In the ongoing 2007-08 season the top five wicket-takers are spin bowlers, each striking at greater than 4 wickets per game. And at the head of the pack offspinner Amit Jaggernauth has carried the Trinidad and Tobago attack with 23 wickets in 4 games, clearly shading the more experienced Dave Mohammed, who has just 9 in as many.
The calls for his maiden Test cap have intensified, and with a record of 139 wickets in 33 first-class matches, it is hard to see how he can be overlooked again. His wickets have been cheap, regular and with the benefit of a much-hyped doosra. Now the selectors have included him as a potential for the series against Sri Lanka, indicating that his opportunity may come at the closest venture. And when the first Test rolls around, should the selectors risk another spin bowler in the light of years of mismanagement, Jaggernauth is the lead contender.
The other specialist spinner in the Test squad, Sulieman Benn has a less impressive career record, but has risen impressively through the ranks of regional cricket. A left-arm orthodox bowler, the 26-year-old has led the Barbados attack well with 22 wickets this season. In the midst of an inexperienced attack, he has presented control and potency, economical but yet to take a 5-wicket haul. Matters of discipline have hindered his career to date, but he is still young enough to make an impact for West Indies, and has certainly has competed as well as any seam bowler at domestic level over the years. Benn's first chances are more likely to come in one-day cricket, but even that would be a step in the right direction for West Indies, showing a willingness to grant spin bowlers opportunities to displace their quicker contemporaries.
Last year's beaten World Cup finalists, Sri Lanka have struggled to maintain consistency over the past year, and their batsmen in particular have struggled to meet lofty expectations. West Indies would be best suited to pick bowlers most likely to continue to expose such flaws in batting. The Sri Lankans are more succeptable to pace than spin in this regard, but given the inconsistency of the West Indies pace resources of late, an in-form spin bowler would be the logical choice. Indeed Muttiah Muralitharan is continuously selected for Sri Lanka, not as a spin bowler, but as the most likely bowler to take wickets in Test cricket. While the spin alternatives of the West Indian variety are far from the established standard of Muralitharan, the foundational principle is standard. In any sport and life in general, it is common sense that those best prepared be asked to complete a task. What remains to be seen is the acceptance of the West Indies selectors that a spinner be considered among these stated best.