Short form rarely translates to the big stage
Let’s call it Gaylic, shall we, the language of the modern, supranational, jet-setting Twenty20 cricketer. It is almost universal now, cricket’s version of Esperanto if you like, and it doesn’t matter whether it is IPL, BPL, Big Bash or the original, the Friends Life t20, the language is the same — cash is the game — and the building blocks of this new language are taken from its founder, the biggest, baddest Twenty20 cricketer in town: Chris Gayle.
Gaylic was being played out over the loudspeakers with deafening effects during the first Test at Lord’s. While his fellow West Indians were fretting about swing, seam and the slope, and other variables that make batting at Lord’s in May such a difficult task, Gayle was freewheeling for the Royal Challengers Bangalore. Every shot he played echoed all the way to Lord’s.
Gayle is known for the power of his shots, but on this occasion, on the first day of the Lord’s Test, it was his timing that was spectacular. Attempting (in vain as it subsequently proved) to push his team into the IPL play-offs, Gayle played what must have been one of the great Twenty20 innings, scoring 128 off 62 balls, with 13 sixes that were sent towering into the Delhi night sky, before raining down on the spectators in the Feroz Shah Kotla stadium. It was, as Gayle later tweeted in his inimitable style, “sweet azz!”
What it helped to do was focus minds not on where Gayle was, but where he wasn’t, and it threw a spotlight on his fellow Twenty20 travellers: Dwayne Bravo, Sunil Narine, Andre Russell and, another fluent speaker of Gaylic, Kieron Pollard, whose teams include Mumbai Indians, Dhaka Gladiators and Somerset. It was hard to recall a Test where the attention was as much on those who were not playing as those who were.
Displaying a similar penchant for timing as Gayle, Ramnaresh Sarwan chose the dying moments of the Test to reflect on his own absence from the team, and his relationship with Ottis Gibson, the head coach, which, during an interview, he implied had become irreparable.
Sarwan’s tale highlighted the absence of other cricketers, notably Jerome Taylor, the fast bowler who had helped to humble England in Jamaica in 2009, but is now out in the cold. West Indies, it was said, were playing with one arm tied behind their backs.
It’s a nice theory, and it fits with the adage that states that cricketers’ reputations are never more buoyant than when they are not in the team, but it doesn’t quite stack up.
In 2009 a team including Gayle, Sarwan and Taylor were smashed by England at Lord’s by ten wickets, and at Emirates Durham by an innings and 83 runs. Oh, and England Lions beat them by ten wickets as well, although Gayle wasn’t playing in that match, since he was busy fine-tuning his language skills in the IPL. Had he been in England, well who knows?
Actually, Gayle did not find it that easy when he waltzed in from India three years ago. He found Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad and Graham Onions more of a handful than those he had been thrashing to all parts in the IPL. He made one half-century in four innings, and not much else, and he couldn’t prevent West Indies being bowled out in their first innings at Lord’s in 32.3 overs, and in their second at Emirates Durham in 44 overs — each innings an eternity by Twenty20 standards, but irrelevantly and embarrassingly short for a Test match.
The line coming out from those disillusioned with the absence of Gayle and Sarwan and others is that Gibson has taken the easy route. That, rather than deal with difficult characters, he has surrounded himself by “yes men” — including the captain, Darren Sammy — and younger players whom he can control and who are likely to cause few difficulties. They may not be as good but at least they will turn up on time and train diligently — and then lose.
But what if it is not about behaviour and a supposedly lackadaisical attitude towards fitness, but performance as well? Sarwan’s interview was one-sided, as interviews inevitably are, and it made much of Gibson’s apparently absent man-management skills. It talked little, though, of Sarwan’s most recent performances for West Indies, which, in 2011, were notable only for their lack of impact.
As Andrew Strauss would tell you, no matter how good your record is, questions are quickly going to be asked after a run of scores that reads 23, 11, 20, 0, 3, 0, 18 and 8, which is what Sarwan’s were against India and Pakistan in 2011.
In the World Cup, when West Indies had a full hand of these supposedly match-winning cricketers, the team looked lethargic, uninspired and uninterested. Gayle scored 170 runs in the tournament, 80 of which came against the Netherlands; Sarwan did not make a half-century in seven innings. Few disagreed with Gibson when he complained: “our senior players have not performed; West Indies cricket has been the same for the last ten years and we’ve had the same players for the last ten years.”
It is easy to imagine scoring runs and taking wickets in Test cricket; it is easy to tell the world what you would have done. It is a whole lot harder actually doing it. Narine, as promising as he looks, has not played a Test match yet, and it may, just may, be harder for him when batsmen are able to wait, watch and pick him off rather than when they have to make the running, as they must do in Twenty20.
Russell, another of those whose presence would supposedly improve things, has played one Test, just one, in which he took one for 104. Pollard has never played a Test match. The bowling averages of top-class all-rounders tend to be slightly lower than their batting averages, but Bravo’s are topsy-turvy: he averages a shade less than 40 with the ball, and a little more than 30 with the bat. In Tests, that is.
It is, of course, difficult to argue that West Indies would not be strengthened by the addition of these players, but the blithe way in which it has been assumed that suddenly all would be well is both wrong and disrespectful to those who actually are out in the middle, putting their reputations on the line. No one has yet explained why, if some of these cricketers returned, they would do so with the attitude and work ethic demanded by Gibson (and every other international coach worth his salt).
Those who are striving in the hardest form of the game deserve our respect; young players such as Adrian Barath, who made only 42 and 24 at Lord’s, but in conditions, and against an attack, that made his runs worth any number of those scored in the IPL, or the County Championship.
Those who think that even the greatest players can simply waltz in and take runs off this England attack should remember Virender Sehwag who last year, arrogantly, thought he could do the same. He ended up with a king pair at Edgbaston and a grand total of 41 runs in four knocks.
When Gayle was last in England in Test cricket, he was involved in a minor spat with Strauss, who had questioned the Jamaican’s decision to turn up two days before a Test match by way of preparation.
“I think Test cricket is the ultimate form of the game,” Strauss said. “It is a true test of character, temperament and technique.”
Implicit in his comments was the need to treat the game with respect. Those playing last week against Anderson and Broad know exactly what he means. Test cricket is the hardest language to master; the rest is just Gaylic.