All set for Test battle
There is a lot to look forward to from Sunday as West Indies and New Zealand begin their three-Test series at Sabina Park in Jamaica.
While there has been the inevitable hype surrounding the 100th Test appearance of Chris Gayle on home turf, the combination of the side under new captain Denesh Ramdin will also be of great interest.
Having battled with a back injury of late which led to him seeking treatment in Germany, Gayle, the big Jamaican left-hander, has declared himself “fit and ready” as he is set to become the ninth West Indian to play 100 Tests. The others in order of numbers are Shivnarine Chanderpaul (153), Courtney Walsh (132), Brian Lara (130), Sir Vivian Richards (121), Desmond Haynes (116), Clive Lloyd (110), Gordon Greenidge (108) and Carl Hooper (102).
And mind you, Chanderpaul is still playing as he approaches his 40th birthday in August.
Those who like to argue about statistics can check Cricinfo for a feature on Gayle by stats editor, S. Rajesh. It makes for very interesting reading and from the perspective of an opening batsman, there are a couple paragraphs which must be shared with readers.
“Since Gayle’s Test debut in March 2000, West Indies have tried 22 other openers in Tests, and none of them have scored even a quarter of the runs that Gayle has at the top of the order: the second-highest is Daren Ganga with 1578 at an average of 25.45, while Gayle scored 6747 at 42.97. Wavell Hinds (1482 runs at 32.21) and Devon Smith (1174 at 23.95) are the only other openers with 1000-plus runs, but clearly neither has been world-class.
“Gayle’s stats as an opener are, in fact, comparable with some of the top West Indian openers of all time. In terms of runs scored he is third in the list, next only to Greenidge and Haynes. (Among all West Indian batsmen he is eighth, and 67 runs from 7000). His average of almost 43 is up there too, marginally below those of Greenidge and Conrad Hunte, who are the only openers from West Indies to score 2000-plus runs at an average of more than 45. If Gayle keeps up his fitness levels and his hunger for five-day cricket, his name just might be in that list too by the time he is done with Tests.”
Now let the debate continue.
At the age of 34, Gayle has indicated that he wants to prolong his Test career despite speculation in some quarters that he would soon hang up his boots while concentrating on the one-day and Twenty20 formats.
Preparation for this series included a two-week camp in Barbados, which gave the selectors and head coach Ottis Gibson an excellent opportunity to determine the form and fitness of players. Gayle was only part of the camp for the last few days and did not play in the final warm-up match. In the circumstances, his true fitness will be tested in the middle. Best wishes, Sir!
So what about the final XI? Having originally selected 13 players, Jason Holder, the Barbados fast bowler, has now been added to the squad. Without giving reasons in its Press release today, the West Indies Cricket Board would therefore leave one to speculate over his call-up.
On the face of it, however, it is expected that Kemar Roach and the recalled Jerome Taylor will share the new ball with curiosity over how their workload is going to be handled.
Taylor has played 29 Tests since his debut 11 years ago. He had a reasonably good first-class season for Jamaica, but his last appearance at the highest level was in November 2009 against Australia in Brisbane.
Roach, the gifted 25-year-old Barbadian, has recovered smartly from a shoulder injury, which sidelined him from competitive cricket for seven months. He is a wonderful bowler and will no doubt be anxious to prove that he is ready for the big arena again with 85 wickets at 27.71 runs apiece in 23 Tests. Effectively, he has not played a Test match since the series against Zimbabwe in the Caribbean in March last year.
Shannon Gabriel is the other pacer in the side and apparently has been bowling fairly well.
It is also with great relief that left-arm spinner Sulieman Benn has been given a chance to resume his international career after playing the last of 17 Tests in December, 2010 against Sri Lanka.
Whatever his perceived shortcomings were, Benn remains one of the best spinners in the region. If the selectors opt for one spinner, he should be given the nod ahead of off-spinner Shane Shillingford, who has had to deal with his own problems surrounding his bowling action during the West Indies tour of New Zealand last December.
West Indies had two practice matches against Barbados Select teams at the 3Ws Oval
– one over three days and the other two days. Spending time in the middle would have meant a lot for the batsmen and to this end, there was a century each for Darren Bravo and Marlon Samuels while Kirk Edwards and Chanderpaul managed half-centuries.
Kraigg Brathwaite, the Barbados captain and opening batsman, who was not in the original training squad, was drafted in late last week, apparently as cover for Gayle. He is in good form and has also been included in the Test squad but Nevisian left-hander Kieran Powell is favoured to partner Gayle at the top.
With six specialist batsmen expected to play, followed by Ramdin at No. 7, it is a question of whether to balance the attack with two pacers and two spinners or put the emphasis on pace, depending on the conditions.
One would tend to believe that the camp served its purpose and hence the selectors would be very clear as to what combination they are looking for.
The team for the first Test should read: Denesh Ramdin (captain), Chris Gayle, Kieran Powell, Darren Bravo, Kirk Edwards, Marlon Samuels, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Sulieman Benn, Shane Shillingford, Kemar Roach, Jerome Taylor.
While the immediate focus is on the Test series, it is also heartening that some of the players in the Sagicor West Indies High Performance (HPC) team continued to perform impressively against Bangladesh ‘A’ in the two-match four-day series in Barbados, which ended yesterday.
The HPC clinched the series 1-0 by way of their convincing 351-run win inside three days in the opening match at the Windward Club ground, Lucas Street, St. Philip. Bangladesh ‘A’ managed to hold on to a draw at Kensington Oval, finishing on 242 for nine off 102 overs, having been set a mammoth 490 for victory.
Jamaican Jermaine Blackwood slammed his second century of the series as he again exhibited wonderful strokeplay. In the second innings, he made 147 in roughly three hours off 157 balls, striking 12 fours and five sixes in a total of 354 for five declared.
Leon Johnson, a little left-hander from Guyana, again batted well with scores of 74 and 63 not out, while left-arm fast bowler Sheldon Cottrell of Jamaica had a match haul of seven for 81 including four for 51 in the second innings.
And just a little reminder that Kraigg Brathwaite, who led the team in the first match, hit a solid 164 in the second innings.
Selectors like to know that players are showing solid consistency. It is now up to Ramdin’s team to deliver against New Zealand.
(Keith Holder is a veteran, award-winning freelance sports journalist, who has been covering local, regional and international cricket since 1980 as a writer and commentator. He has compiled statistics on the Barbados Cricket Association (BCA) Division 1 (now Elite) championship for over three decades and is responsible for editing the BCA website (www.bcacricket.org). Holder is also the host of the cricket talk show, Midwicket on the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation 100.7 FM on Tuesday nights.)