Two venues on opposite sides of the island would have gained significant attention this week in relation to representative West Indies teams.
As the Test squad concentrated on getting in shape for the three-match series against New Zealand with a practice game against a Barbados Select XI at the 3Ws Oval, the Sagicor High Performance Centre (HPC) were parading against Bangladesh ‘A’ at the Windward Club, Lucas Street, in the eastern parish of St Philip. Both caught the eye.
The form and fitness of some players in the Test squad under new captain Denesh Ramdin would have been monitored very closely by head coach Ottis Gibson, the support staff and selectors in coming up with the best combination for the first Test in Jamaica, beginning June 8, while those representing the HPC were just as keen to make statements that they are also ready for the next level.
I had the privilege of enjoying the wonderful atmosphere at Lucas Street with a nice, steady breeze blowing across the ground in sunny conditions as the HPC swept to a 351-run win on the third day of the opening four-day match. Centuries by Jermaine Blackwood in the first innings and captain Kraigg Brathwaite in the second were both of high quality and the pace trio of Miguel Cummins, Sheldon Cotterrell and Carlos Brathwaite looked sharp and purposeful.
Overall, the HPC played like a professional unit and must now fancy their chances of winning the second and final four-day match as well at Kensington Oval, starting on Monday before the teams contest three 50-over and two Twenty20 matches.
Kraigg Brathwaite has already played ten Tests and his reputation for spending long hours at the crease was again underlined in a knock of 164 which took 341 minutes off 257 balls and contained 15 fours and one six. Having been dismissed without scoring off the fourth ball of the match, the 21-year-old Barbados skipper was determined to atone on a pitch, which was not only good for batting but also had something in it for the bowlers.
There were aspects of Brathwaite’s batting which led one to believe that he is bent on becoming more attacking. Instead of just getting in line and pushing balls to fielders at times, he was picking the gaps and finding the boundary with powerful strokes.
Brathwaite got to his sixth first-class hundred in a shade under three hours off 129 balls, counting ten fours and one six and though he later went back into a more defensive mould, especially when another Barbadian, Jonathan Carter, was dominating a fourth wicket partnership of 69 by scoring 49 off 50 balls with seven fours and one six, overall it was a commanding knock.
It soon dawned on me that the presence of Sir Vivian Richards, the former West Indies captain and batting great, who is working with the HPC as a consultant, must have been making an impact. Richards has been joined by Vasbert Drakes, the former Barbados and West Indies fast bowling all-rounder, who is the HPC bowling coach. They are paying close attention to the techniques of the players along with head coach Graeme West and there was an air of happiness and satisfaction with what was displayed by the HPC team. Also present was West Indies selector Courtney Browne.
Blackwood is very exciting to watch. He plays strokes almost at will and his driving was a joy to behold. The figures tell it all. He made 140 in a total of 292 all out, having batted for 209 minutes, faced 160 balls and struck 23 fours and one six. His century came in 138 minutes off 103 balls with 19 fours and one six.
The 22-year-old Blackwood boasted of the highest aggregate in this year’s regional first-class championship, amassing 611 runs including one century and four fifties at an average of 40.73 for Jamaica. Another plus for him is his excellent fielding and speed across the ground. If there is one concern about his batting, it would the selection of strokes. There are occasions when he exhibits unnecessary rash shots but such can be worked on.
Cummins bowled with good pace and also got some balls to bounce awkwardly en route to a match haul of seven for 65 including four for 40 in the second innings. After a disappointing first-class tournament for champions Barbados, he looked like the Cummins of last season.
There were also a few outstanding performances in the three-day match at the 3Ws Oval with a century from Darren Bravo the highlight on the first day.
Another warm-up game, slated for two days, begins on Monday. As far as the Test team is concerned, having announced a 15-man squad to prepare for the camp and with fitness concerns over a couple players, namely Dwayne Bravo and Chris Gayle, it should not be that difficult in picking the 13 to assemble in Kingston on Wednesday. Dwayne Bravo has conceded that he is only about 80 per cent fit following a shoulder injury and did not play in the match against the Barbados Select side, while Gayle, like off-spinner Sunil Narine, missed the camp because of commitments with the Indian Premier League (IPL).
More telling, however, is the fact that Gayle, the veteran Jamaican opening batsman, was to have treatment in Germany for an injured back as he anxiously looks forward to playing his 100th Test in front of his home crowd at Sabina Park.
The selectors would be mindful of that and in the circumstances are likely to draft in Kraigg Brathwaite as cover. There was a hint of Brathwaite’s call-up today as he was in the nets with the West Indies team at Kensington Oval.
Jason Holder, the Barbadian fast bowler who is yet to play a Test, is expected to miss out on selection, along with Dwayne Bravo.
In its release on the training squad last Sunday, the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) said that Gayle and Narine were to join the camp on June 1.
Now there are reports that Narine is keen on playing for Kolkata Knight Riders in the IPL final on Sunday and faces the likelihood of not being considered for selection for the first Test. If Narine fails to meet the deadline for the camp, it would be a test for the WICB and its stated policy of players making themselves available in a timely manner for an international series.
Whatever the outcome, the focus should be on ensuring that the camp serves its purpose in a big way.
(Keith Holder is a veteran, award-winning freelance sports journalist, who has been covering local, regional and international cricket since 1980 as a writer and commentator. He has compiled statistics on the Barbados Cricket Association (BCA) Division 1 (now Elite) championship for over three decades and is responsible for editing the BCA website (www.bcacricket.org). Holder is also the host of the cricket Talk Show, Mid Wicket, on the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation 100.7 FM on Tuesday nights.)