Why India’s West Indies tour matters

While the West Indies have been pushed so far that they have little to lose, pressure is on Indian captain Virat Kohli and new coach Anil Kumble, to ensure that the team lives up to its billing

M.S. Dhoni with West Indies’ wicket keeper Denesh Ramdin. Photo: Reuters
M.S. Dhoni with West Indies’ wicket keeper Denesh Ramdin. Photo: Reuters

Reading about Denesh Ramdin being dropped from the West Indies squad that will play the first Test against India, and of Jerome Taylor retiring from the five-day format, I was reminded of Tony Cozier, the late commentator and great chronicler of West Indies cricket.

When we met last a few seasons ago, I asked Cozier just what exactly was wrong with cricket in the Caribbean. “Can’t describe it precisely,’’ he replied in the sing-song voice that had won him countless fans across the world. “Probably a prolonged death wish,’’ he added dolefully.

It may seem harsh to contextualize the absence of Ramdin and Taylor in the pessimism Cozier carried with him in his last few years. After all, it is hardly unique in sport for players to lose form, fitness or zest and be dropped, or quit. But given the turmoil that has prevailed in Caribbean cricket in the past couple of decades, you don’t necessarily have to be a conspiracy theorist to wonder if things aren’t going from bad to worse.

Neither Ramdin nor Taylor are exceptional players or in great form currently. Yet they weren’t slouches either; both have depth of experience and are not so old (Ramdin is 31 and Taylor, 32) as to be considered over the hill.

These developments, coming on the heels of the bowling coach, Curtly Ambrose, being dumped after the Twenty20 World Cup, suggests that West Indies cricket may be going through another purge. One too many and all too frequently, making their Test future wobbly. Certainly, Ramdin’s Test future is now uncertain, Taylor has decided he will play only limited-overs cricket, and nobody knows what this season holds for some others.

Earlier, stellar players like Chris Gayle, Dwayne Bravo, Andre Russell, Sunil Narine and Kieron Pollard have been lost to the longest format for one reason or the other—and not a cricketing one. The whys and wherefores of issues afflicting West Indies cricket are too complex, particularly for an outsider, to rationalize. But there is irrefutable evidence that the prolonged problem has seriously affected Test cricket in the Caribbean.

Once the toast of the cricket world for the flair, power and athleticism they brought to the sport, the West Indies have been languishing in Test cricket for 20-odd years. Much to the lament of cricket lovers, for the flavour of West Indies cricket was unique.

While they are currently placed at No.8 in Test match rankings, they have only recently won the T20 World Cup. But more than a conundrum, this is a sad comment on the state of affairs, with the best players missing from the longest format.

For the series against India, West Indies captain Jason Holder leads a raw and young side. Barring veterans Marlon Samuels and Darren Bravo, who have been around for a while, the others boast of few accomplishments even at the first-class level.

On the face of it, this could mean a mismatched contest: India are not only ranked No. 2 by the International Cricket Council, but have also won their previous two series, against Sri Lanka (August-September 2015) and South Africa (November-December 2015).

Yet it’s this apparent disparity between the two sides that could prove dangerous for the Indian team. The West Indies have been pushed so far that they have little to lose, and everything to gain. This puts the pressure on the Indian players, particularly captain Virat Kohli and new coach Anil Kumble, to ensure that the team lives up to its billing. So high are the expectations that even a drawn series would be a setback.

The big concern is India’s poor record overseas, particularly outside the subcontinent. True, in 2011 India won the Test series 1-0 when touring the Caribbean, but the performance even then was lacking in panache and ambition.

Since then, every overseas series, barring the one against Sri Lanka last year, has been lost, some even from winning positions, suggesting a lack of will and an ability to cope in alien conditions.

This is where Kohli’s captaincy and Kumble’s vast experience in international cricket will be put to the test. While the players have shown fine aggression and chutzpah in recent matches, sustaining this over four matches will be a challenge. The batting order has depth and looks well settled. The bowling combination still has to be defined, and much will be read into how they fare in the two practice matches before the first Test.

The return of Mohammed Shami will give the pace attack added edge—if he stays fit. Given that pitches in the West Indies have played slower and lower bounce in recent years, however, it is likely that Kohli and Kumble will lean more heavily on slow bowlers to win matches.

The crux will be how quickly captain and coach strike up a rapport. Kohli is the best batsman in the contemporary game and would want to be recognized as the best captain too. Kumble, who has been given a one-year term because of the short-sightedness of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, will be seeking early validation of his appointment. Individually and in tandem, this series could mark a turning point in their lives.

Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.

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