In none of the previous 10 World Cups, West Indies have appeared more unlikely to survive as now, writes Tony Cozier
The West Indies launch their attempt to arrive on the World Cup champion's podium for the first time since 1979 against Ireland at Saxton Oval in Nelson, New Zealand today.
West Indies players celebrate a Scotland wicket during their warm-up match at Sydney Cricket Ground on Thursday. Pic/Getty Images
It is a destination as distant as Mars. The first to lift the trophy in 1975, repeating four years later, they have crashed well short on five of their seven subsequent missions. In 1983, India displaced them just when the goal seemed theirs for the third successive time; in 1996, they fell to Australia with it in sight. On none of the previous 10 occasions have they appeared more unlikely to survive the journey as now.
They undertake it under captain Jason Holder, a new, inexperienced mission commander, younger than any West Indies have ever had. Since the dismissal of Ottis Gibson as head coach last August, Stuart Williams remains as stand-in chief engineer, the only second stringer among the other 13 in the position.
Their preparations have been marked by a succession of struggles, in the preceding ODI series in South Africa and in the two pre-tournament matches designed as fine tuning for the World Cup. The last before their opening match was on Thursday against Scotland, an associate team that has never won a World Cup match; they managed to eke out victory by three runs.
Searching for a glimmer of hope, Sir Richie Richardson, the overall manager, and Clive Lloyd, whose selection panel chose the crew, have used the well-worn clichés — "a game of glorious uncertainties", "cricket's a funny game" — to raise some hope. Presumably in all seriousness, Richardson went as far as to declare after the nine wickets, warm-up canter by England that the aim was "not to peak too early"; it overlooked the reality that the West Indies haven't "peaked" for some time. Lloyd noted that others have overcome such dismal backdrops to reach their goal.
Underdogs have done it
In 1983, champions India were as discounted as West Indies are now; they had previously won just one match (over East Africa) in 1975 and 1979. In 1992, Pakistan had to depend on a point gained from a rained-out match against England to make it to the semi-final, going on to beat them in a full match to claim the Cup. In 1996, no one saw Sri Lanka coming strong to emerge as deserving champions. In each case, success was based on certain positive factors. India were swept along by an unmistakable team spirit and self-belief under the leadership of Kapil Dev, the mighty all-rounder.
Pakistan were inspired by their charismatic captain Imran Khan's rallying call to his men to "play like cornered tigers" when they were on the edge of elimination; Imran led from the front, Javed Miandad, Wasim Akram, the fledgling Inzamam-ul-Haq and the others were right behind him. Sri Lanka shocked opponents with the originality of the opening blast of their openers, Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitherana, that laid a base for the continuing aggression of the classy Aravinda de Silva and the strong middle order. Like Kapil and Imran before him, the confident, uncompromising Arjuna Ranatunga was the categorical leader.
No team spirit
West Indies have no such skipper, no such team spirit, no such confidence. Yet to develop as a player, Holder was handed an impossible task when appointed to direct several old hands, three of them former captains. That he replaced Dwayne Bravo, clearly dropped for his role in the team's costly and contentious withdrawal from the tour of India in October, added to his difficulties.
It was a decision that fueled discontent in the ranks, openly from Chris Gayle, the oldest, most dominant individual in the squad. What optimism they still carried even after South Africa was dented by Sunil Narine's withdrawal from the World Cup, denying the team its most effective limited-overs bowler. Williams believes the return of Darren Bravo and Kemar Roach after lengthy absences can bring "a different feel to the whole team, maybe the spark that we need in the World Cup".
Bravo is a quality, if underachieving left-hander, who fills the No 3 position that was such a problem in South Africa, Roach brings with him incisive pace movement. Even the most upbeat coach could hardly expect two players alone, no matter how special, to suddenly transform his team from no-hopers to World Cup contenders. He accepts that it must be in collaboration with other key players.
It involves a proliferation
of 'ifs'. If, for instance, at one and the same time, Holder establishes himself as the leader, the prodigious Gayle rediscovers fitness and form for one last, memorable World Cup hurrah, Marlon Samuels sets his sights beyond pretty 70s and 80s, Andre Russell combines control with his lively bowling and fierce hitting, Jerome Taylor starts taking wickets as he used to, Bravo and Roach match Williams' hopes and the team as a whole sheds its traditional inconsistency. Somehow, that seems just too many 'ifs' to look any further forward than the opening blast off against Ireland.
Tony Cozier continues to be the voice of West Indies cricket
Jason Holder West Indies
> EC Joyce is dismissed early.
> Chris Gayle scores a ton.
> John Mooney goes for runs.
> Kemar Roach bowls economically.
William Porterfield Ireland
> Carry their warm-up form.
> Gayle goes for a low score.
> Andy Balbirnie stars again.
> Share solid opening stand with Paul Stirling
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