Based on their struggle to tie the just concluded three-match One-Day International (ODI) series against minnows Afghanistan 1-1, in St. Lucia, it is no secret that West Indies will have a big sweat in their quest to gain automatic qualification for the 2019 World Cup in England.
Currently ranked at No. 9, West Indies lost the first match by 63 runs last Friday, then battled to a four-wicket win on Sunday before rain prevented a ball from being bowled on Wednesday.
With a five-match series against mighty India starting next Friday in Trinidad, followed by a tour to England, it will take a tremendous turnaround for Jason Holder’s team to climb the ladder and squeeze into the top eight before the September 30 deadline.
Honestly, it is a daunting task and at this juncture, West Indies are likely to be taking part in a tough qualifying tournament next April when 10 contenders, including the best of the Associate nations, battle for two spots.
Missing out on the current ICC Champions Trophy Championship in England was a bitter pill to swallow. Now to think of the likelihood of playing a qualifying tournament to get into the World Cup is a very uncomfortable feeling.
Yet, we have to be realistic about the current standard of play exhibited by West Indies. Are the players working as hard as they should be, and do they truly recognise the pain and frustration encountered by fans?
Growing up in an era when West Indies won the first two World Cups in 1975 and 1979 and were losing finalists in 1983, it is hard to come to grips with what is on display today.
Afghanistan’s 63-run win at the Darren Sammy National Cricket Stadium – their first in this format over a Full Member other than Zimbabwe or Bangladesh – brought into sharp focus the ability of the West Indies batsmen to cope with high quality spin bowling.
Rashid Khan, an 18-year-old leg-spinner, grabbed seven for 18 off 8.4 overs – the fourth-best figures in ODI history – as West Indies, chasing 213 for victory, were bowled out for 149 in 44.4 overs.
He again created problems in the second match, picking up three for 26 off ten overs with West Indies chasing what appeared to be a straightforward target of 136. They won in the 40th over.
Here was a case of a bowler enjoying himself as he relied mainly on googlies. In fact, the batsmen were uncertain of which way the ball would turn. West Indies head coach Stuart Law and his staff would probably argue that the batsmen recognised their mistakes and are determined to work on them.
Perhaps, there is a twist of irony in the West Indies batsmen having problems against leg-spin bowling, as in early April, Rajindra Dhanraj, the former Trinidad & Tobago and West Indies leg-spinner, joined the coaching staff as a spin bowling consultant.
In a Press release, it was stated that Dhanraj would be working with the team in the build-up to the ODI series against Pakistan and “will return ahead of the start of the Test series”.
Now, while Dhanraj’s role was to work with the slow bowlers, and as Cricket West Indies Director of Cricket Jimmy Adams put it at that time “he has a wealth of knowledge on the game and we know he will make a great contribution”, one wonders to what extent the batsmen were learning how to play quality spin bowling.
It is a matter best addressed by those who work closely with the batsmen but no mention has been made of Dhanraj since that stint.
In the Twenty20 and ODI series against Pakistan, especially the former, co-incidentally, another 18-year-old leg-spinner, Shadab Khan, mesmerised the West Indies batsmen. It, therefore, begs the question of nimble footwork and reading wrist spinners.
Mildly put, Can (Khan) they against Khans in the shorter versions?
But how should one seriously assess the overall showing by West Indies against Afghanistan?
The pace attack bowled with much more purpose in the second match as they utilised the short ball intelligently to have the batsmen fending awkwardly and resulting in dismissals. Against better opposition, however, it could be a different story.
This is not meant to show any disrespect to the fast bowlers or coaching staff, but some of the lifting deliveries sent down by Shannon Gabriel, Holder and Alzarri Joseph, would have been dispatched by the likes of Shikhar Dhawan and Virat Kohli.
Yet, every encouragement should be given to the pace attack in trying to exploit weaknesses. We should always remember that fast bowling played such a pivotal role in the fortunes of West Indies, going way back to the 1960s and then escalating in the 1970s through to the mid 1990s.
While the modern era has a packed international programme and teams vary according to Tests, ODIs and T20Is, there are some players who have been able to manage all three versions effectively by way of being smart and working hard.
As far as the batting against Afghanistan was concerned, there was not much to shout about although Shai Hope played with a lot of determination. He had top-scores of 35 and 48 not out and also looks an improved wicket-keeper.
The opening pair of left-handers Kieran Powell and Evin Lewis must not only show more consistency but also pay close attention to shot selection.
Since returning to international cricket after a self-imposed three-year break, Powell has scored only 125 runs at an average of 15.62 in eight ODI matches against England, Pakistan and Afghanistan. His only half-century was 61, at No. 3, in the first match against Pakistan in Guyana.
Lewis has also struggled in his last eight matches, scoring 159 runs (ave: 19.87) with a highest of 47 against Pakistan in that first match at Providence, which West Indies won by four wickets, chasing 309.
Yet another left-hander, Jonathan Carter, must watch his declining form as well. He had a fairly promising ODI series against England with scores of 52, 39 and 46 but has mustered only 58 runs in his last five innings.
No wonder, there have been calls in some quarters for a shake-up in the batting. It is an area that cannot escape the attention of the Courtney Browne-led selection committee. As one who has always placed a lot of emphasis on statistics going back to the period when he served as chairman of the Barbados selectors, Browne will surely be put to the test.
And statistics – winning ODI matches against India and England by September 30 – mean so much to West Indies.
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 three-and-a-half 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. Email: Keithfholder@gmail.com