Marlon Samuels is supposed to be the senior batsman guiding the youngsters around him. It’s hard to say, however, what kind of example his batting in the series has set.
It came out of nowhere. On the fifth day of the St Lucia Test, West Indies were 11 for 2 in their second innings with two-and-a-half sessions still left to bat out to save the game. Marlon Samuels had faced 12 balls, and was batting on 0. In the previous over, he had negotiated two snarling Mohammed Shami bouncers as well as he could have, managing to sway away from one and feeling the sting of the other on his bicep, dropping his hands safely out of the way and taking the blow. So far, he had batted like a man trying to save a Test match.
Then came a regulation outswinger from Bhuvneshwar Kumar – good length, in the channel outside off stump. Samuels leaned back, cleared his front leg, and swung through the line. It was an unwise shot if he middled it, suicidal if he edged it, and just plain silly if he played and missed. Samuels played and missed.
He missed another airy swish three overs later, against Ishant Sharma, and then, having struck R Ashwin for successive fours, ran down the pitch and looked to hit him back over his head.
There were at least five reasons to avoid this sort of shot. A: Ashwin had a man back at long-on. B: Ashwin was capable of getting the ball to dip and beat him in the air. C: In the first innings of the second Test, Ashwin had dismissed Samuels by beating him in exactly that manner. D: Samuels was still fairly new at the crease. E: West Indies were trying to save a Test match.
Samuels ran down the pitch. The ball dipped and pitched half a foot shorter than he expected. Samuels aimed to hit straight over Ashwin, but the turn caused him to drag his shot into the leg side, off the inside half of his bat, and send it bouncing to the right of long-on. He was lucky he didn’t connect slightly better, and hit it straight down the fielder’s throat.
It’s hard to say what Samuels was trying to achieve. He certainly wasn’t succeeding. But he wasn’t going to pause and reflect and come up with Plan B. In the next over, he made room and tried to slash Ishant Sharma through point. He exposed his stumps, and carved away. Swish, clatter, bye bye.
Samuels was 35 years old. He was playing his 120th Test innings.
Two days before the second Test at Sabina Park, he had said the following words, when asked if he felt a West Indies comeback from 1-0 down was realistic.
“Well, first and foremost,” Samuels replied, “I’m not going to be here to tell you that it’s a young team. For me to say that is like finding excuses for the team. It’s a Test team, and Test cricket is big-man cricket, and the players should know that by now.
“They are here, playing Test cricket. So we all have to step up to the plate, and put up a very good challenge against the Indians. The Indians are a very good team, a very good unit, so what we want to try and build right now is a team spirit, and build a stronger unit in order [to move forward]. Yes, we have new players coming in, but they still have to deliver. At the end of the day, you have to do that to keep your job here.”
At the start of the series, Samuels could have considered himself lucky to still be holding on to his job. He had made 11, 0, 13, 6, 9, 3, 0, 19 and 4 in his nine previous Test innings. That’s 65 runs in nine innings. When West Indies discarded Shivnarine Chanderpaul, he had scored 179 runs in his last 10 innings. Chanderpaul had averaged 71.00 in his penultimate year of Test cricket, and over 50 in each of the four years preceding that. Chanderpaul was one of the greats of West Indian batting.
Samuels, before the series against India, was a man averaging 33.53 in the 17th year of his Test career. He had kept his place because of his limited-overs form.
Before that brief, shot-a-minute, and frankly inexplicable innings on day five in St Lucia, Samuels’ scores in the series were 1, 50, 37, 0, and 48. He had shown flashes of willingness to leave the ball outside off stump, and flashes of his stroke-making ability, but had never looked entirely secure. He had looked a shuffling, perennially crease-bound figure trying his best to make an iffy technique work.
In that second innings in St Lucia, even that seemed to have gone out the window. Here was a man who, according to reports in the media and voices in the commentary box, was possibly playing his last Test series, and who had himself neither confirmed nor denied this when asked the question. Here he was, playing shots that could justify the denial of a farewell Test.
Ahead of the fourth Test in Port of Spain, Jason Holder said the retirement talk was “just speculation”, and tried his best to defend Samuels’ approach in St Lucia.
“Firstly, I don’t know anything of this being Marlon’s last Test series,” Holder said. “I’ve heard a lot of speculation, but it’s just speculation. He hasn’t come out and said anything in the dressing room, so as far as I know this is not his last Test series.
“In terms of his shot, obviously it didn’t look the best, but if you watch the way Marlon plays, Marlon is quite unique in the way he sets up. It’s tough to gauge, you know? Marlon can be very free-spirited when he gets going, but everyone knows how destructive he can be.
“You know, he has to work out, and has to be a bit more selective in terms of his stroke play, and if he feels as though he’s on top of the bowling and he feels it’s the moment to capitalise, I guess I have to support him, I guess, in the sense of him trying to take the game into his hands, you know?
“I think he’s a team player. He’s always been, in terms of the way he’s approached his innings in the past for West Indies, I have no doubt of him putting everything in for the team. The problem is, for all of our batsmen, we just need to work on, I guess, our shot selection, and at times in the game trying to capitalise on the starts that we’re getting.”
Holder was right that all of West Indies’ top order, and not just Samuels, had been failing to convert starts through the series. But Samuels is supposed to be the senior batsman guiding the youngsters around him, setting an example. It’s hard to say what example the rest of West Indies’ batsmen can have taken from his batting in the series.
Despite the various collapses of this series, it is still possible to look through West Indies’ line-up with the expectation of better things to come. Kraigg Brathwaite and Darren Bravo are still young and have good knocks in tough conditions behind them and potentially solid futures ahead of them. Leon Johnson has only just begun his Test career. Jermaine Blackwood is impetuous but clearly gifted, and is only 24. Roston Chase has only played three Tests, has already scored a cool, match-saving hundred, can bowl tidy offbreaks, and is only 24. Shane Dowrich is neat, busy, organised, keeps wicket fairly well, and is only 24. Holder often seems a man occupying the wrong slot in the batting order, a batting allrounder thrust into a bowling allrounder’s role, but he too is only 24.
Samuels is 35, with the best years of a mediocre career behind him. With one Test remaining in the series, it is hard not to wonder if West Indies could replace him with a youngster such as Shai Hope, or simply promote everyone batting number five or below by one slot and include Carlos Brathwaite as a second seam-bowling allrounder. Apart from an extra bowler, they would gain a batsman with three fifties in his first three Tests.
It’s hard to see how it would benefit West Indies to retain Samuels for the final Test of a series they have already lost. But it seems likely he will play, and add another Test appearance to a long and frustrating career. It may or may not be his final Test as well. Watch it closely, and don’t let your expectations soar too high.