By Zaheer E. Clarke
Published August 15, 2016
Carlos Brathwaite tops the batting averages in the West Indies team, but he was dropped for the Sabina Test match. The selectors need to pick the players based on their demonstrated strengths.
A tall, lissome and athletic 17-year-old young man from Chelsea Road in Bay Land, Barbados was once picked as a slow bowler to represent the West Indies Test team. By today’s standards, he would have been thought too young to have a glass of red wine much less be handed a red ball to toss at batsmen in international cricket. Unsurprisingly, in his first match at Sabina Park, like most slow bowlers, he was placed in the lower order to bat, specifically at number nine in the lineup. At the end of a career spanning 18 years for West Indies, this young man played 93 matches in all. Interestingly, that first match turned out to be the first and last match he’d bat that low in the order or be dubbed – strictly – a slow bowler.
Several players start their cricket careers, whether it be in high school, in the domestic leagues or in international cricket, in a particular role and eventually find out that their strengths lie elsewhere.
Franklyn Rose started out in high school as a wicketkeeper-batsman. One day his coach asked Rose to move from behind the stumps and throw down a few at him so that he, the coach, could demonstrate to the players how to bat. After that spell in the nets, the coach ensured Rose never touched the wicketkeeper gloves again. When Rose later played international cricket, he had the best start to a career of any West Indian fast bowler.
Kumar Sangakkara started out his international career as a wicketkeeper-batsman, but after five years, the selectors took that role away from him and picked him solely as a specialist batsman. They realized he was far more valuable and productive in the team as a specialist batsman than a wicketkeeper-batsman. Initially, Sangakkara didn’t agree with the decision, but the first series after the decision, he and best friend Jayawardene set a world record partnership of 624 runs. Unsurprisingly, Sangakkara became one of the most productive specialist batsmen in Test cricket history.
So, oftentimes, the coaches, managers, and the selectors have to realize the players’ strengths and pick the match XI accordingly to optimize the player’s and the team’s performances. The coaches, managers, and selectors from other countries seem able to adjust and are more flexible with their players’ roles for optimization. In the West Indies, however, in recent times, I often wonder if the players’ roles in the team are set in stone.
The 17-year-old young man from Chelsea Road mentioned earlier was Sir Garfield Sobers. Without a doubt, the greatest all-rounder Test cricket has ever seen. However, in fact, he wasn’t a great bowler but very good and diverse. Nevertheless, arguably, he is the greatest batsman the world has seen after Sir Donald Bradman. If you recall, he started out as a slow bowler, and after his first 15 Tests spanning four years, he was averaging a lethargic 44 with the ball taking 18 wickets in 18 innings, though bowling about 20 overs per inning. On the contrary, after they made him bat in every position from number two in the lineup to number nine, he was averaging, for a bowler, a commendable 31 with the bat, with four half-centuries. In his 16th match, batting at number three, he became the batting king of the world when he scored 365 runs not out to break the then world record to the unadulterated joy of the Sabina Park fans. Some of who, four years earlier, saw him make his debut as a bowler, batting at number nine.
Sobers though picked initially as a bowler turned out to be a superlative batsman. I have been distressed in recent times with players picked for a particular role, they shine considerably in another role and selectors, coaches and managers keep picking the player in the unproductive role. And when the player keeps failing in the unproductive role he is dropped and his untapped strength in the other role is lost and never utilized to optimize team performance – despite the team’s inadequacy in the productive role of the player. This inflexibility is killing West Indies cricket.
At the ICC T20 World Cup, former West Indian fast bowler, now commentator, Ian Bishop implored us to remember Barbadian Carlos Brathwaite’s name. In the final over of the World Cup finals, with Braithwaite facing an improbable situation, he sent West Indian fans ecstatic in everlasting joy with four swipes, each for six, to snatch the trophy.
In Test cricket, albeit in only three games, the Carlos Brathwaite name should be remembered when the final West Indies XI is being picked. Unfortunately for the last match against India at Sabina Park, though having the best career batting average of 45 in the squad, with three half-centuries in five innings, Brathwaite was dropped. Brathwaite, as many have indicated, has been picked as a bowling all-rounder, however, he is looking more like a batting all-rounder and is the best batsman in the team statistically.
The selectors need to adjust how they view Brathwaite’s role in the team and optimize obviously his batting talent. Sri Lanka did it with Angelo Mathews, a bowling all-rounder whose batting talent rose to prominence in 2014 when he topped the Test batting averages among the elite batsmen. In a similar vein, Australia adjusted Steven Smith’s role in the team from a legspinner who could bat a bit coming in at number eight in their lineup to their number three batsman and captain. Smith is now the number one batsman in the world, averaging almost 60 in Tests.
Table 1. West Indies players batting averages in Test matches before the Sabina Test vs India
West Indian opener Rajendra Chandrika looks out of sorts and after 5 matches and 10 innings he’s averaging a paltry 14 with the bat, the worst by any West Indian opener in history with a minimum of 10 innings. It is inexcusable for Brathwaite to have been dropped from the Sabina Test while Chandrika kept his place. In all likelihood, Chandrika will be dropped for the third Test, Brathwaite will be still out in the cold, and West Indies will likely continue to NOT pick players based on their strengths.
Until next time…
© Zaheer Clarke
Zaheer E. Clarke is an award-winning freelance sportswriter, who played in his university cricket team as a wicketkeeper-batsman. His teammates always thought he was a better batsman and cheerleader than a wicketkeeper.
This blog article was also published in the Western Mirror on August 15, 2016.