Cricket: West Indies' new blood runs thin

Tony Cozier feels the lack of fresh batting talent threatens Brian Lara's ambitions
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The Independent Online
BRIAN LARA'S assertion following the West Indies' loss in the Third Test on Tuesday was a self-evident truth. "The team who improves more in their batting are going to win the series," the new captain noted.

To be more to the point, what he might have said was that the West Indies cannot expect to win Test matches by consistently failing to raise totals of over 300. It is both unfair and unrealistic to expect Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh and the other bowlers to redeem hopeless situations every time.

It is a deficiency recognised not by Lara alone but by the manager Clive Lloyd and the coach Malcolm Marshall who, before the last Test, set up a special, but as it turned out fruitless, session for the batsmen.

The West Indies' batting statistics over their last seven Tests are nothing less than an embarrassment. In their last 14 Test innings, on six different grounds in the Caribbean and Pakistan, the West Indies have passed 300 only twice, with an unexceptional 343 against Sri Lanka in St Vincent last year as their highest total, and have six times been bowled out for under 200.

Only Lara and Carl Hooper have managed individual hundreds in that time and there have been a mere four century partnerships. In normal circumstances, such repeated failures would lead to sweeping changes. The West Indies' problem is that there are no obvious alternatives. No new batsmen advanced on the A team tour of South Africa late last year - Jimmy Adams, the captain, was the only one to average better than 35 - and only those who have been tried and discarded before have done anything in the present domestic season to interest the selectors.

Roland Holder and the left-handers Clayton Lambert and Keith Arthurton, all over 30, have been three of the very few outside the Test side among the runs this season. They have each been around for more than 10 years and at least have the experience needed to counter the sub-standard pitches that have become the rule, rather than the exception, throughout the Caribbean.

Holder, 30, is a well-organised right-hander who played all seven Tests against India and Sri Lanka last season and one on the recent tour of Pakistan. But successive selection panels have not been convinced by his credentials. His marathon 183 against England for the A team before the First Test following 87 for Barbados against Jamaica in the President's Cup match on the same Sabina Park pitch that caused the First Test to be abandoned might change the panel's opinion.

In spite of the continuing failure to find a settled opening pair, the Guyanese Lambert has been disregarded ever since his solitary Test in England in 1991. He is now 35 and has an ugly, front-on stance that is a mirror-image of the former England batsman Peter Willey's. He also has a first-class average in the mid-40s and one of the four hundreds made in the President's Cup this season. A substantial innings for Guyana against the Englishmen this weekend would make the temptation to bring him in for the struggling Sherwin Campbell or the wasteful Stuart Williams irresistible.

Arthurton played the last of his 33 Tests in England in 1995. His average of 30.71 and his age (33 yesterday) are not in his favour. But he was the outstanding batsman in last October's Red Stripe Bowl, has scored four half-centuries in four innings this season and remains fit and one of the finest outfielders in the West Indies.

No one would be giving a thought to recycling them had younger batsmen come through. The little Jamaican opener Leon Garrick, the tall left-hander Floyd Reifer of Barbados and the Guyanese teenager Ramnaresh Sarwan did little with the A team in South Africa. Robert Samuels and Adrian Griffith, the two left-handed openers in Tests in Australia not much more than a year ago, have faded from the picture. And while knowledgeable judges talk fondly of the Antiguan Sylvester Joseph, the West Indies' Under-19 captain, and Keith Semple of Guyana played soundly against England early in the tour, they are both well short of Test class just yet.

Which leaves the West Indies with the same line-up that has failed so repeatedly of late. The pitches will surely get better but, as Lara has emphasised, so must the batting. If it does not, his first series as captain will not end happily.

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