Like his recent predecessors, new West Indies Test captain has a tough job at hand, writes Tony Cozier
Denesh Ramdin has been at the core of West Indies cricket long enough to be aware of the complexities he must confront as the new Test captain. History, ancient and modern, reveal that he is inheriting a potential poisoned chalice. He has observed from close proximity the misgivings that were a constant companion, throughout his three-and-a-half years at the helm, of Darren Sammy who he now replaces. His own career has been a bemusing roller-coaster ride: first choice wicket-keeper and vice-captain at its peak, ignored on the downslides whenever his batting, not his keeping, fell away.
With a mediocre team at his disposal, new skipper Denesh Ramdin will be tested to the hilt. Pic/AFP
He was harshly criticised, by the players' association and his Trinidad & Tobago board among others, for his bizarre gesture of displaying a defiant message from the middle to a critical Sir Viv Richards on completing a hundred at Edgbaston in 2012. In the Champions Trophy last season, he was suspended for two matches for claiming a bump-ball catch against Pakistan, in spite of maintaining that it was an innocent mistake.
For all that, his reputation as a shrewd reader of the game's constantly changing situations has been long recognised. He led the West Indies Under-19s to the final of their World Cup in Bangladesh in 2004, later captained the 'A' team, is the current Trinidad & Tobago skipper and was Sammy's most recent deputy.
His promotion comes just when he is at the top of his game, his selection no longer in doubt. It is a significant advantage. For two years, between 2010 and 2012, the diminutive Jamaican Carlton Baugh filled his keeper's spot in Tests and ODIs after his batting went into a slump. Devon Thomas, a young Antiguan, was brought in for the 2011 World Cup and an ODI series in Australia without fulfilling expectations.
Since Ramdin's return to Tests in 2012, his forthright approach has earned him an average 44.29 in 14 matches, with three hundreds and five 50s. They are numbers to stack up against the best of the batsmen/keepers over the same period — MS Dhoni (46.27), Brad Haddin (42.26), BJ Wattling (46.00), Matt Prior (34.13). His 128, from 109 balls with five sixes and 12 fours, against England in Antigua in March was the highest in ODIs by a West Indian keeper; it confirmed his new self-belief.
While he personally is having the time of his life, West Indies cricket at its lowest ebb. The refrain from disenchanted fans, and some former players, recall the glory days when the West Indies dominated the world game under Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards quarter-century ago. They ring incessantly in the ears of the current generation. The chorus reminds them that their predecessors went 15 consecutive series during the 1990s without losing one, goading them that, for the past decade and more, they have languished near the bottom of the International Cricket Council (ICC) ratings.
The era when the captaincy went only to well-connected white amateurs has long since passed; in the age of meritocracy, even great players such Garry Sobers and Brian Lara have been pilloried for their unconventional leadership. Lara quit twice. "Burnout" forced Richie Richardson to take a break. The pressures at the top prompted Shivnarine Chanderpaul to step aside. It tested Sammy and will undoubtedly test Ramdin.
The state of West Indies cricket at Sammy's appointment in October 2010 was no better than it is at his departure. When Dwayne Bravo, the favourite to succeed Chris Gayle, preferred the life of a free agent rather than be constrained by a West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) retainer contract, Sammy was the only alternative.
In other circumstances, the job would have been Ramdin's. He had then played 42 consecutive Tests and was a proven captain. The problem was that, while the selectors mulled over Gayle's successor, he was not in the team, replaced by Baugh as his scores tapered off. So Sammy it was; St. Lucia's first Test cricketer became St. Lucia's first Test captain. It is doubtful whether the recent record would have been any better whoever the captain was. Sammy simply led teams that were a match only for New Zealand, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, the three opponents who comprised the record six consecutive victories in 2012-13.
Sobers and Lara had earlier discovered that, even with their commanding presence in weak sides, it was impossible to squeeze blood out of stone. Ramdin can expect a similar experience as no outstanding new players have come forward while others have gone backwards. His initial series, in the Caribbean against New Zealand, in June, and Bangladesh, in August and September, at least offer some relief before others far more taxing, against South Africa, England and Australia, follow.
Sammy won't be involved. Predictably, he has now retired from Test cricket. Supplanted by Dwayne Bravo as ODI skipper last year — a move, according to chief selector Clyde Butts, to "refreshen the leadership" that hasn't yet worked out — he remains captain of the Twenty20 team that won the World championship in 2012, got as far as the semis this year and can hold its own against any opposition. The white ball version is where he has found his is niche as a specialist six-hitting finisher. He will clearly play on at that increasingly prominent level.
Whatever his personal Test record, Sammy made a universal mark as what Ramdin described at the handover as "a very humble and hardworking cricketer (who) gave his all to the job". WICB president Dave Cameron described his leadership as "energetic and resolute". The reality is that, honest, salt of the earth cricketer that he is, he didn't qualify as an authentic all-rounder. As such, the misgivings always concerned whether or not he merited a place in the Test eleven.
The obvious rejoinder was that Dwayne Bravo was the only other option and he was committed to Twenty20 franchise teams. Presumably, now that he has accepted the WICB contract, he will return for the first time since 2010 to take Sammy's responsibility of batting No 6 and bowling medium-pace swing in Tests. The incentive is still there for young batsmen who can bowl fast — or the other way round. None is immediately identifiable.
In the end, Sammy himself recognised that his time was up. After the drubbings in the recent series in India and New Zealand and a year in which his batting average in seven Tests was 21.9 and his eight wickets cost 49.87 each , he acknowledged that "some careers are on the line, could be mine as well, you never know". While his returns in Tests verified his prediction, Sammy leaves that version with appreciation for his wholehearted commitment to the West Indies, even from those who were never persuaded that he was quite good enough as a player. Now it's Denesh Ramdin's turn to be under the microscope.
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