IT was the last, parting body blow for a team that had absorbed more than its fair share in the preceding six weeks.
Even as the West Indies players packed their kit for the flight out of Johannesburg, heading for the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, Sunil Narine, on record the contemporary game’s most effective white ball bowler, belatedly withdrew from the squad.
Whatever little confidence they retained following their preceding mauling by South Africa was inevitably diminished.
Narine’s cocktail of dipping off-breaks, knuckle balls and doosras has confused the finest players of the day. His mantra is the cricketing version of Muhammad Ali’s ‘float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’.
His 73 wickets in 52 ODIs have been gathered at averages of 26.49 runs a wicket and 4.10 runs an over; on both counts, he is ahead of any contemporary West Indian. The ICC places him top of its list of Twenty20 bowlers, second in ODIs.
His absence appreciably weakens the ineffective bowling, so starkly exposed by the unforgiving South Africans who compiled six hundreds in the five ODIs and rattled along at an average of 6.81 runs an over and 61.04 runs per wicket.
They amassed 439 for two in the second match, four short of the overall ODI record, and 351 for five off 42 overs in the fifth. AB de Villiers’ 100 off 31 balls in the second match in Johannesburg, astonishing even by his superior standards, was faster than any in the 43 years of ODI cricket. Hashim Amla, their nemesis through the Tests, and Rilee Roussow, a 25-year-old left-hander basically still on trial, twice shared record partnerships of 247.
The list was long and instructive. All but one of the main West Indies bowlers were savaged for over 5.5 runs an over. Two went for more than six, another for more than eight.
Carlos Brathwaite, the strongly built medium-pacer, was the exception. His economy rate over three matches was 4.83. A sound case could be mounted for him as a World Cup replacement for the irreplaceable Narine; the pitches would surely favour his method rather than Narine’s stand-in Nikita Miller, along with Sulieman Benn the second left-arm spinner in the squad.
The return of Kemar Roach as the strike bowler is partial compensation for Narine’s absence. His average runs per wicket (26.85) and economy rate (4.90) are not that far behind the mystery man’s. Above all, he is a wicket-taker whose 64 ODIs have brought him 98 wickets.
The one concern is his fitness. A shoulder strain ended his stay in India even before the others made their premature exits and a damaged ankle ended his South African tour midway through his 17th over in the first Test.
With understandable reason, Narine’s return was eagerly anticipated. That it has been put on hold is an untimely setback.
He hasn’t delivered a ball for West Indies since his career was abruptly interrupted after negative reports on his action from two matches during the Champions Trophy in India last October.
He was barred from bowling for the Kolkata Knight Riders in the final; West Indies later omitted him from the ill-fated, aborted tour of India and the now completed South Africa tour.
Encouraged by results after what the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) termed “intense remedial work” undertaken by Narine himself in Trinidad, the selectors deemed him ready to return for the World Cup and named him in the squad.
With the WICB’s assertion that preliminary tests showed Narine’s tweaked action to be under the allowable 15 degrees elbow flexion for all his deliveries, he was back in the regional 50-overs tournament, the Nagico Super50, a few days later, spinning the Trinidad and Tobago Red Force to victory over the Guyana Jaguars in the final with the implausible return of 8-3-9-6.
The umpires, as well several former players, endorsed the change. All seemed well—except to Narine himself.
“Going into the World Cup is a little too much too soon,”
was his basic reason for choosing to stay at home.
“After consulting the WICB, for both West Indies and my sake we have decided to delay my return to international cricket until I am 100 per cent confident in all that I do,” Narine added.
The WICB elaborated. “His exposure to the intensity of the cricket World Cup would be both unfair to him and the West Indies squad,” it stated.
Inevitably, the apparent contradiction of Narine participating in a West Indies domestic tournament but immediately afterwards pulling out of the game’s international showpiece has fuelled some cynical speculation.
The answer lies in the reluctance of the WICB to subject their proven match-winner to “the intensity of the cricket World Cup”.
Narine is not suspended from bowling in ICC cricket as the Twenty20 Champions League was a domestic tournament, as was the West Indies Super50. The World Cup, with its concentrated, global television coverage, presents altogether different pressure to a bowler not yet certain of himself.
The WICB emphasised that Narine “remains in an optimistic frame of mind and looks forward to returning to international cricket at the earliest opportunity.”
After the results in South Africa, that won’t be a moment too soon.
It was a series that was always going to be a mismatch. Firmly ensconced at No.8 in the ICC rankings in both Tests and ODIs against mighty South Africa at Nos.1 and 3, West Indies were clearly competing out of their class, a lightweight against a champion heavyweight.
Presented with the absurd preparation of a solitary day’s cricket, they were unsurprisingly overwhelmed in two Tests, by an innings in the first, by eight wickets in the third. The weather rendered the second a meaningless draw.
A 2-1 triumph in the Twenty20s, their favoured format, and a pulsating, joyfully celebrated one-wicket victory in the fourth ODI, the first over South Africa since 2006, momentarily lifted their sagging spirits. Heavy defeat followed both.
The ODI’s staggeringly lop-sided statistics reflected the wide gap between the teams, even as some of South Africa’s prominent players were repeatedly rested.
All through the ODIs, the exclusion from the World Cup squad of Dwayne Bravo, the previous, widely travelled captain, and Kieron Pollard hovered overhead like an ominous dark cloud.
As the senior member of the team, Chris Gayle’s harsh public criticism of the decision was an undesirable distraction. It appeared to have an effect on his own performance; after securing victories in the two Twenty 20s with 77 off 31 balls in the first and 90 off 41 in the second, he managed just 71 runs in the five ODIs, a first ball duck in the last.
It is impossible to know, not difficult to imagine, what effect such an initiation had on the new captain Jason Holder. Inexperienced, untested and, at 23, the youngest member in his team, he was given an awesome responsibility by head selector Clive Lloyd when named to replace Bravo.
He now faces another daunting challenge as he prepares to lead West Indies into their opening match of the World Cup, without their main bowler, against the most dangerous associate, Ireland, in the New Zealand town of Nelson on February 16.