Cricket Feature Article by Justin Lichterman
Much has been written about the tremendous decline of West Indies cricket since 1997, and to talk about a renaissance now would be foolhardy.
West Indies cricket remains decidedly average, at best, and still suffers the effect of years of mismanagement and hubristic complacency. To suggest the West Indies are serious World Cup contenders would be farcical, but to ignore their potential to take home the trophy could be fatal folly.
The last time a team underestimated the West Indies, it cost them a World Cup semi-final berth. In 1996, South Africa believed it could undo the Calypso kings with two-spinners and no Allan Donald, but were undone by the elemental Brian Lara. The left-handed Trinidadian helped himself to a brilliant century off the Proteas and remains a batting threat to all challengers.
No other player of the modern era has the ability to win matches off his own willow blade like Lara, who can single-handedly turn a match on its head.
In 1999 the West Indies crashed and burned, bowing out of the competition before the Super Sixes stage. The current team is younger and less fearsome than the team that last contested the Cup, but they remember the wound to West Indian pride and will be hungry to avenge it. The campaign starts at the top, with Chris Gayle and Wavell Hinds, dashing batsmen with attacking styles that shadow the swashbuckling West Indian legends of the past. For these men, One Day cricket is an ideal form of expression, and with their success opening the batting can come West Indian wins.
Behind them lies a trilogy of experienced campaigners. Lara needs no introduction, but Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Carl Hooper bring stability to what could be a tempestuous top order. Chanderpaul has been a revelation in his latest incarnation as a middle order batsman, scoring quickly and consistently. He remains rock-solid, and it should not be forgotten his career best ODI score of 150 came on South African soil.
Hooper's career has been a tale of inconsistency and unrealized talent, but he is a dangerous batsman capable of farming strike with the tail and building partnerships, or, when the mood strikes him, playing positive, attacking cricket. The batting lineup is completed by Ramnaresh Sarwan, who of late has begun to do his talent and technique justice. Sarwan averages over 50 with a strike rate of almost 80 in limited overs internationals and could be one of the surprises of the tournament. Add keeper Ridley Jacobs to the mix as a more than capable batsman and the West Indies batting may spring a surprise or two.
They recently fared more than good against the tournament's premier batting lineup, defeating India in the subcontinent in a series of enthralling contests.
The West Indies bowling is highly underrated. Although stalwarts Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh have retired, recent international debutante Vasbert Drakes has the most experience in South African conditions of any foreign World Cup bowler. Drakes played several seasons of South African domestic cricket for Border, with exceptional success, and could be a key factor in the West Indies' campaign. Paired with the much-improved Mervyn Dillon, Drakes could form a part of a consistent bowling line up that includes Pedro Collins and the exciting new fast bowler Jermaine Lawson, who recently decimated Bangladesh.
The twenty-year old Jamaican boasts natural athleticism and blistering pace, approaching 93 miles per hour, causing Colin Croft to compare him favorably with former fast bowling legend Andy Roberts. With a bowling attack that boasts the experience of Drakes, the consistency of Dillon, the raw pace of Lawson and the ability of Collins, not to mention Carl Hooper's useful spin, Narendra Nagamootoo's leg breaks, and Hinds, Chanderpaul and Gayle's ability to turn their arms over, this West Indies team has more than one string in its bow.
The side does have some glaring weaknesses - the West Indians are a notoriously poor fielding side and have a longer tail than they would like.
Drakes and Dillon are useful sloggers, but the West Indies will need results from its specialist players to progress deep into the tournament. If these men play to their potential for 6 weeks in South Africa, the West Indies have a real, if outside, shot at a World Cup championship. Sri Lanka were outsiders in 1996 and won; why not the West Indies in 2003!