Cricket: Worst of West Indies may be yet to come

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The Independent Online
THEY ARE lacking class, form and technique and that is not all. Perhaps most disturbingly, West Indies have also been short of guts. The side have lost six consecutive Test matches and if inevitability has accompanied their walk to doom it has been hard to avoid the suspicion that they have readily jumped on the plank while fastening the blindfold.

No team in history have succumbed to successive defeats as heavy as 351 runs and 312 runs as West Indies have done in the final Test of the series in South Africa and the opening game of the home rubber against Australia. The first of those results ensured that they went down 5-0, an unprecedented humiliation, but at least it was thousands of miles away. Out of sight, it was possible to put it out of mind.

But last weekend there was no escape. West Indies were in Port of Spain, Trinidad, the home ground of their captain, Brian Lara, and they were asked to make 374 to win in the fourth innings. That, everybody recognised, was impossible but they had a chance at least to go down with spirit. They were all out for 51, the lowest total in their history.

That they had to bat on an inadequate pitch was only compounded by a woeful exhibition of the batting art in which the feet rarely moved and the bat did so only across the line. Wicket and batting deserved each other. All this is still difficult to grasp because the side who cannot win not so long ago could not lose.

Now, the West Indies are easily in sight of equalling, indeed surpassing, the record of eight successive Test match losses jointly held by South Africa between 1888 and 1899 and England between 1920 and 1921. Once, from 1983 to 1985, they won 11 matches on the trot and a little while before that, from 1981 to 1985, went 27 matches without defeat. They were not only the best side in the world, they were hard and uncompromising too.

All empires crumble, usually through conceit and the misconception that they will go on forever, and the West Indian one has merely followed Greece, Rome and Liverpool Football Club. There is some disagreement in the Caribbean at present about how this pretty pass was reached, but some are still clinging to a faint hope that a batting order containing Lara, Carl Hooper, Jimmy Adams and Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Test centurions all, should yet provide some security for the ageing Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose. Still, many also suspect that the only defeat the Australians suffer on tour is likely to remain that in a game of beach cricket in Antigua against a team led by Richie Richardson.

"It isn't only batsmen we have to find, it's bowlers as well," said Larry Gomes, a middle-order member of the great side of the Eighties. "We're going through a phase, but cricket is at its lowest ebb here. We have to rebuild everything, but it will take a few years. I would like to hit back against Australia straight away but there's nothing to make me optimistic. The young players have got to be given time."

The voice of Gomes is worth hearing not only because he was a splendid, elegant player who has studied the game closely and has carefully articulated thoughts about it but also because he was close to Lara, a fellow Trinidadian, throughout the present captain's formative cricketing years and is himself now a coach to the island's next generation of Under-13 and Under-15 teams.

Gomes is a natural supporter of Lara. All manner of stories are flying round the Caribbean about the captain. Invariably, they mention his arrogance and some call into question his behaviour (off the field) during the recent Test. Tales of drinking and rudeness to a hotelier may be exaggerated but they have already circulated to other islands.

"I really think they have to keep him as captain," said Gomes. "He's not perfect but there's nobody else coming forward and I think he'll be hurting. He's not getting the best from his players at present but I wonder if he's receiving the right support as well. He will get most of the blame but cricket above all is a team game. I don't mind losing games but there are ways to lose with fighting spirit."

Gomes, like Steve Waugh, Australia's captain, pointed to poor technique resulting from uncoordinated coaching over the years. But that, he said, had been exacerbated by increasingly poor pitches. "We also used to go to play a lot of county cricket and big club cricket in England which helped enormously but that has become less frequent," said Gomes. "Maybe we should have classes for our groundsmen as well as our players. It's important that we teach everybody."

Gomes is not especially excited about his present charges, but nor is he despondent about finding future cricketers. "They're keen to play at a young age and that's when we must try to teach them the right habits. I would say that the problem comes in keeping them interested. I've heard it said about the interest in other things but isn't that the case with all young men everywhere? Cricket is still the game here."

West Indies are not alone, of course, in possessing shoddy batting technique. It is becoming all but endemic. Bob Woolmer, the coach of South Africa, said last week in New Zealand it had been provoked by generations of one- day cricket. There are also more young cricketers in the game and they are usually introduced first to big cricket via limited overs. The two forms, he said, demand vastly different techniques.

Pitches are different, balls are different, bats are heavier, said Woolmer. Coaches, he thought, do not generally work sufficiently on the basics with international players and then there is simply the fact that people get fed up. Top players are playing too much. He was fairly gentle on West Indies but he knew by the end in South Africa their hearts were not in it.

They may not be either in Jamaica this weekend or for a long while to come anywhere. Up is not yet the only way they can go.

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