Wednesday 16 May 2012

Windies at a Cross-roads...

When Darren Sammy awoke from a slumber filled with English-conquering dreams earlier this month, he would have donned his maroon robe, picked up the St Lucia Express from the doormat and read that England’s green and pleasant lands were officially in the midst of severe drought. The pocket hand warmers, a perpetual companion of a West Indian on any England tour, would have been speedily removed from his suitcase to make room for a pair of reflective sunglasses the likes of which Pokemon’s Squirtle would afford a nod of approval. Sammy, a nervous flyer, may even have boarded the plane across the Atlantic with a degree of optimism.
Time for Sammy to start a rain dance?

Hours later, arriving on English soil to bear witness to biblical downpours last encountered by Noah as he hastily put the finishing touches to his ark, Sammy could perhaps have been forgiven for thinking that the English definition of drought was wildly out of touch with sanity.

The impression that modern West Indian touring sides abhor visiting England sadly endures, yet it hasn’t always been the case. Where the God-like players of yore encountered the very same chilled winds, wet early English summers and unfavourable batting conditions, they opted for a scorched earth policy. Once lush outfields were left bare as the mighty projectiles launched from the bats of King Viv and co reduced each blade of grass in their path to mere cinders, whilst keeping the precipitation at bay through fear of their wrath should it dare to make an appearance. Darren Sammy’s charges combat the elements in a very different manner, and it doesn't provide quite such impressive viewing. During a recent warm-up fixture against the England Lions at Wantage Road the only West Indian without deeply pocketed hands was wicket-keeper Denesh Ramdin. How times have changed.

Haphazard mismanagement by the West Indies Cricket Board has ensured that Sammy's side will attempt to compete against Test cricket's number one team bereft of star performers Chris Gayle and Dwayne Bravo, who are both on Indian Premier League duty, whilst young spin-wizard Sunil Narine remains with Kolkata Knight Riders in the same competition. Rather bizarrely, and even more so after a fine century for Leicestershire in the County Championship today, middle order batsman Ramnaresh Sarwan has been omitted from the squad entirely.  It may be a decision that the selectors are beginning to rue, and it doesn't bode well for the West Indies that in all possibility a West Indies team superior to the eleven that will be walking out at Lord's tomorrow could perhaps be mustered.

Despite a courageous effort against Australia recently, a series in which they were ultimately defeated 2-0, the West Indies, for all their promise, displayed a propensity for capitulating just as victory looked to be a possibility. Winning is said to be a habit, but so is losing, and like a chain smoker that had progressed on to nicotine patches before reverting to 40 a day they are finding it rather difficult to walk away from. A shaky top order, ably reinforced by the indomitable but beleaguered Shivnarine Chanderpaul, can expect little charity from an English bowling attack that is simply lethal in their own conditions. The West Indies bowling unit possesses no shortage of pace and fire in Fidel Edwards and the impressive Kemar Roach, but it remains to be seen if they are able to gain mastery over the swinging ball, a bowler's greatest asset in such conditions.

In truth, Darren Sammy may well be hoping that this English drought continues. If rainfall akin to that which has fallen since a hosepipe ban was enforced across many parts of the country continues then his side may well come away with the unlikeliest of series draws. It seems unlikely, but sadly it is in all likelihood their sole hope.

For the West Indies, this series is about progress. They will of course retain hopes of causing an astonishing upset, but only the most pessimistic of English fans would be fearing such an outcome. After competing against Australia there are signs that this cricketing giant is slowly beginning to re-awaken having lain dormant for the best part of two decades. This series is an important cross-roads in the re-emergence of West Indian cricket. If they can remain competitive against an England side that are often rampant in their own conditions it will be a considerable feather in the cap of the West Indies, and another sure step along the road to recovery. A crushing defeat would keep such a recovery firmly in Sammy's dreams.

Tuesday 1 May 2012

Me, Myself and the IPL...

Until recently the Indian Premier League had been to me what protecting Gotham City has been to Batman for the past 73 years; fun on occasion, but swiftly becoming tedious and largely irrelevant. Where the Dark Knight had to contend with new, increasingly cunning and malevolent super-villains shortly after deposing his previous arch-enemy, I’ve had to deal with the excessively excitable IPL commentary team augment amplified exaggeration and hysteria in to their appraisal of the action as each season passed. It’s debatable as to who has had the tougher assignment.

When the concept of the Indian Premier League was first announced it appeared, to this sceptical purist at least, little more than a glorified domestic Twenty20 tournament utilising the vast cricketing resources of the Indian sub-continent to create the greatest money-spinner the sport has ever witnessed. The pioneers behind the competition have certainly achieved that. I was wrong to underestimate its significance.

I remain very much a traditionalist when choosing cricket à la carte. Where Twenty20 provides a tasty starter to whet the appetite, Test cricket is the main course. One Day International’s are very much for dessert; a painful addition to the meal that you don’t really need when you’ve already reached saturation, but ultimately indulge regardless. It is no surprise, then, that I have cared little for the incessant stream of cringe-worthy advertising emanating from India ahead of each and every IPL season.

MS Dhoni's forward defensive
Yet, strangely, I might just have been won over. Perhaps those annoyingly histrionic adverts reminding me that the IPL is the 21st century’s very own Roman gladiatorial games are effective at gaining viewers as well as inducing involuntary vomit in one’s mouth, after all, and like a vessel heeding the call of a particularly mischievous siren I’ve been lured in; whether in to rocky waters or new lands ripe for exploration only time will tell. Thus far, progress has been satisfyingly serene.

The turning point, it would seem, has been the rather agreeable sight of a selection of the world’s finest Test match performers wreaking havoc in the competition, proving that the cream does indeed always rise to the top. We have heard the term “Twenty20 specialist” banded about aplenty, but the fifth edition of the IPL has witnessed these ‘mercenaries’, as I tend to call them, convincingly eclipsed.

It has been a joyous sight indeed to watch cricketers of unsurpassed ability, Virender Sehwag, Kevin Pietersen, AB de Villiers and Dale Steyn in particular, unfurl their full array of talents in an environment where innovation and daring is applauded rather than admonished. Such is the awe in which I have observed their genius that I’ve even begun to develop an immunity to those highly irritable phrases in the mould of “and there’s another DLF maximum for Kevin Pietersen”. Really, Mr Shastri? However you endeavour to accentuate the shot and lace it with frills it remains a six, but never mind, I have access to an IPL television viewer’s greatest companion – the mute button. It’s no bother.

In addition to the child in a sweetshop demeanour of the commentary team, I still cast many an aspersion at the IPL, let that be clear. Cheerleaders at a cricket match? What next, popcorn vendors and shoe shiners? Whilst those good women are undoubtedly talented in their dedicated field, and provide an arm-chair letch like myself with many an eye-opener, some might argue it pales in comparison to the majesty of a Kallis on-drive. And players being wired up to the studio enabling a mid-innings chat – shouldn’t their undivided attention be on fielding in the one format of the game where each and every run is so often critical to the outcome? The world’s finest Twenty20 cricketers have a duty to entertain the cricket loving viewers, not impress them with previously unbeknownst oratory skills. I'm also against English cricketers playing in the IPL when their county is in action back home, though money is of course king in cricket, as it is with every profession.

I digress slightly. The above are, after all, only minor gripes. I’ve followed IPL season 5 in a greater capacity than I have afforded any of the previous seasons. Consistent displays of extremely high quality cricket – admittedly more from the big name Indians and overseas stars than the younger cricketers that the tournament is supposed to benefit – have made for compelling viewing. I thought I had borne witness to every cricket shot and delivery in the book. I hadn’t. Nothing that these players do on a cricket field surprises me anymore, such is the rapid rate of innovation in Twenty20 cricket, and the infectious atmosphere and adulation given to the competitors by a rabid Indian crowd at each and every venue only adds to the enjoyment.

Despite putting up admirable resistance, I’ve finally succumbed to the IPL bug. What’s not to like about it?