Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Battle For The Wooden Spoon

Even though Zimbabwe and Bangladesh occupy the bottom rungs of the ICC Test ladder - their lack of matches making them little more than an exhibition sides - the real battle for the wooden spoon gets underway in Antigua over the next five days. A series loss for either West Indies or New Zealand will plant them firmly at the bottom of the real teams.

The odds would seem to favour the West Indies winning. They have been able to choose a stronger squad and even though their last win at home was four years ago, that's far better than New Zealand's away record. The Kiwis haven't won a series away from the Shaky Isles in the last ten years except Zimbabwe and Bangladesh.

Is there a more passionate cricketer?
In their defence, the Kiwis played some good cricket at home against South Africa late in the southern summer and scored a dramatic win against the Australians at Hobart last December. They will be a better side than the one Chris Gayle monstered in the preceding short form games leading up to the first Test at Antigua. They finally have a formidable pace attack, led by the evergreen Chris Martin. Without doubt the most underestimated opening bowler in the world, he bowls an impeccable off stump line these days and what he has lost in pace is made up for by the surprise his bouncer - faster and delivered less often - can cause batsmen. Supporting him will be the energetic and immensely talented Doug Bracewell, removed from influences and extravagances and ready to prove his efforts against the Australians were not a flash in the pan. The interesting addition will be Neil Wagner, the latest South African to find an easier path to the bottom of the top grade of cricket after qualifying in New Zealand. Not quick by any means, he swings the ball both ways and on a responsive deck will also seam the ball about. He won't be favoured by conditions but he has ticker and a lot of wickets behind him.

"What did you say I was supposed
to do with this?"
Dan Vettori will be at one end again, sending down his left arm slow mediums. I'm sorry. I restrict the term spinner to those who actually turn the ball. The West Indies greatest concern against Vettori is falling asleep. I remind readers again that New Zealand's second highest wicket taker (359 Test scalps) takes a wicket every 78 deliveries. Therefore, to bag five and destroy the West Indies, he'll need to bowl 65 overs. On his economy rate, that will net you 155 runs. Fair trade I think.

Ross Taylor and Brendon McCullum return to strengthen the batting but as senior players, its time they contribute more consistently. The encouragement for New Zealand is the knowledge that apart from Wagner, this is the side which played in the last Test against South Africa at the Basin Reserve.

The West Indies have removed Kirk and Fidel Edwards from their squad. Fidel had injuries in England and Kirk endured the tour from hell. The man who had batted with such purpose, strength and success against India, Bangladesh and Australia in the previous twelve months, lasted only 87 balls in his eight innings on tour for just 20 runs.

Chris Gayle doing what he does best
The rehabilitation and return of Chris Gayle is the undoubted talking point of this series. Close to the highest paid cricketer in the game, he is certainly the most often paid, toting his wares to T20 tournaments world wide over the past two years in preference to wearing the West Indies maroon cap. I will be reminded here that the West Indies Board and in particular the President Julian Hunte, didn't want Gayle but the feeling was mutual. The big, charismatic opener has cried crocodile tears over his non appearances and in the process has opened up the morally corrupted paths which have led Sunil Narine and Marlon Samuels into periods of preferencing the IPL over their Test side. He will no doubt impose himself on the series but frankly, his Test record isn't that which befits the superstar status he demands.

The rest of the batting line up looks strong, despite the absence of Darren Bravo with a groin strain. Keiron Powell is better suited to three than opening and with Narsingh Deonarine batting at six and England series hero Marlon Samuels at five, Shiv Chanderpaul has finally been prised by crowbar up to four. With Dinesh Ramdin at seven, the West Indies finally have a strong batting line up - on paper. Narine is yet to prove himself at Test level but gets the chance on home soil. With Darren Dammy captaining the side and Kemar Roach fully fit again, the only choice for the selectors is between the returned man, Tino Best and the tried and true Ravi Rampaul. Best had an emphatic return against England but it was his unexpected near hundred which made more impact than his bowling. Rampaul is more likely to bother the New Zealanders whose weakness is bowlers who attack their off stump consistently.

It seems we need to repeat the comment that this series is one Test too short. Before the First Test, two T20's and five ODI's were played. Surely an additional Test is a better option. Two Test series prove nothing, gain nothing and if anything, lessen the impact of Test cricket, especially in places like the West Indies where cricket is failing.