It is not exactly a case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
But West Indies enter tomorrow’s first Test against Zimbabwe at Kensington Oval with the knowledge that victory is expected against a struggling, inexperienced side, and defeat will provide for their acute embarrassment.
But as West Indies coach Ottis Gibson has stressed that when good times are there to be enjoyed, they should be exploited to their maximum as tough times in this era for the West Indies have often been just around the corner.
“We simply look back to Australia when we [were there] in January and trying hard to win but couldn’t win because they were obviously superior. You have to take your tough moments like the Australia situation and then enjoy these situations.
“People will say that [beating Zimbabwe] is easy and if you get that mindset that it is easy, then you go and get rolled over and then the same people who are saying it should have been easy, are saying that you are not as good as you think you are,” Gibson said before the two teams take to the middle tomorrow.
Zimbabwe were rolled over in the preceding One-Day and Twenty20 International series and provided limited opposition for a team yet to overcome South Africa, Australia, India, Sri Lanka in a Test series in recent years. Indeed, the 2008-2009 1-0 series win against England in the Caribbean remains the only instance where West Indies have defeated one of the so-called “big teams”. Though they recently defeated New Zealand, a team rated above them, even the most ardent regional supporter would hardly describe the Kiwis as one of the “big teams”.
But as the West Indies take on Zimbabwe team balance is still their major issue.
Once a centre guaranteed to produce lively wickets, soil from the nearby Westbury Cemetery has apparently been the preferred mix of curators over the past decade. Flat wickets have been the rule throughout the Caribbean where spinners generally thrive and fast bowlers curse their sporting choice.
If there is any return to type tomorrow, ideally the West Indies should enter the game with a full pace battery of Kemar Roach, Shannon Gabriel and Tino Best, along with a spinner.
However, with captain Darren Sammy in the Test mix, the days of three genuine pacers on a consistent basis have become a distant memory with Sammy often bowling first change in conditions screaming for another quick bowler. On the very infrequent occasion under Sammy’s captaincy when three fast bowlers have played it has been at the expense of a spinner or the shortening of the batting.
With Roach and Best expected in the starting XI, the bold decision will have to be taken to also include Gabriel at the expense of a batsman or the specialist spinner. Gabriel is brimming with threat and has arguably been the fastest bowler in the Caribbean in recent times, although Best might want to differ.
Additionally, Gabriel’s change of action seems to have brought with it greater accuracy and he looks the real deal. It would be a shame if he is relegated to towel duties tomorrow.
With his inclusion, the West Indies will scarcely play both Narsingh Deonarine and Shane Shillingford and the decision will have to be made whether to opt for a frontline spinner in Shillingford with five batsmen or six batsmen with Deonarine’s useful if hardly threatening off-spin.
Of course, West Indies are more likely to take the counter-productive route of leaving out Gabriel and persisting with Sammy as an attacking option on the Oval track.
West Indies welcome back Marlon Samuels who has been their most reliable and prolific batsman over all three formats of the game since his return from a two-year ban. He looked in good touch for the Sagicor High Performance team at the Carlton Cricket Ground where he scored a half-century against the visiting Africans last week.
There is no weight of great expectations on Zimbabwe which is to their advantage. Firmly fixed at the wrong end of the world ratings, Zimbabwe have not played a Test since they were beaten in Napier by an innings-and-301-runs by New Zealand more than a year ago.
This will only be their fifth Test since ending their six-year exile from the longest version of the game in 2011. It is also Zimbabwe’s first Test in the Caribbean in 13 years.
Any challenge which the visitors make will have a great deal to do with the contributions they get from their premier batsmen in captain Brendan Taylor, Hamilton Masakadza and Vusi Sibanda and bowlers, spinners Ray Price and Graeme Cremer, and fast bowler Kyle Jarvis, who is yet to show his best form on tour.
West Indies (probable) 1 Chris Gayle, 2 Kieran Powell, 3 Darren Bravo, 4 Marlon Samuels, 5 Shivnarine Chanderpaul, 6 Denesh Ramdin (wk), 7 Darren Sammy (capt), 8 Shane Shillingford, 9 Tino Best, 10 Kemar Roach 11 Shannon Gabriel
Zimbabwe (squad) 1 Brendan Taylor (capt), 2 Tino Mawoyo, 3 Vusi Sibanda, 4 Hamilton Masakadza, 5 Regis Chakabva, 6 Malcolm Waller, 7 Kyle Jarvis, 8 Keegan Meth, 9 Tendai Chatara, 10 Chris Mpofu, 11 Prosper Utseya, 12 Sean Williams, 13 Timycen Maruma, 14 Raymond Price, 15 Graeme Cremer (WG)