As Virat Kohli sauntered into the ground for warm-ups, the sun blazing down on his neck, a middle-aged lady, in utter awe, gasped, “Ooh, he maan batting with Chris Gayle. I want to see ‘im.” Until Kohi winded up his warm ups, catching practice and headed to the nets outside the main stadium, she simply stood admiring him, yelping at her friends passing by, “He like our Gayle, strong man, I love heem bat. He hits lot of boundaries.”
Kohli is a man much loved by the West Indians, loved both for his aggression and personality, and for the very coincidence that he plays for the same IPL franchise as Gayle. The adulation cuts through ages and sexes. Behind the nets, there is a gathering of children, not yet in their teens, eagerly clinging onto the side-netting of the fence, closely observing every stride he made with innocent wide-eyedness of their age. “He’s like you see on TV.”
They wave their arms furiously to catch his attention, but Kohli is so in his bubble, that he hardly reciprocates, or he must not have even noticed them.
But the irony of the context can’t be lost. Here ‘s Kohli, but without Gayle. Imagine the wonderful subtext that would have been had Gayle too been playing. For the usual Caribbean cricket-watchers-not to be mistaken for crazed fans, which now is a fast-dwindling tribe in most island clusters-Gayle is their unmistakable man-at-arms, their most celebrated cricketer since Brian Lara, and the face of Caribbean cricket. Yet he will be padding up for CPL franchise Jamaican Tallawahs than be West Indies’s figurehead in the longest series on these shores since they famously recouped the Wisden Trophy from England in 2008.
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It’s wistful to conjecture the ifs and buts, the might or could have been threads. If Gayle hadn’t feuded with the WICB, or if only the latter was more benevolent and less despotic, if only Gayle still had the passion for the white robes of his and bend his ego-then how drastically different the build-up to the series could have been and how feared the West Indies would have suddenly become with the addition of just one name.
Not just Gayle, you can weave a few other popular names into this fold of wistfulness, that of Dwayne Bravo, Sunil Narine and Kieron Pollard. Arguably, they could have lend a different competitive dimension, and edge, to the contest than a relatively callow side, which when you take out Marlon Samuels and Darren Bravo has a combined experience of merely 97 Tests, of which two of them have yet to be handed over the Test cap and four others having played less than five Tests. Between them, inclusive of both Bravo and Samuels, they have registered just 20 hundreds, and logged in just three five-fors. In a team as unfledged as this, Gayle and Co would have made an unmistakable difference, even if they wouldn’t have guaranteed untenable success or made them the overwhelming favourites.
But at least the hosts wouldn’t have been brandished with the no-hopers tag in a home rubber and be pitied at (Caribbeans are so proud that they detest being pitied). But as it is, the wistfulness remains just wistfulness and the West Indies cricket, as has been their wont in the last decade, remains a stride away from another hiccup, another headlong freefall into another gorge of utter shame.
Given the perpetual proximity of Caribbean cricket with scandals, it was hastily implied that a fresh storm is simmering up when coach Phil Simmons used the word “hiccup” in the second sentence of his interaction. Queried about their preparation, he replied: “We have been together since the 11th and things have been good. There have been a few hiccups in the camp, but generally, it’s been good.”
The word suddenly triggered the whiff of another scandal, only to be promptly smothered by a chuckling Simmons, “Just a few hiccups with rain. That’s all.”
This was their first practice session in Antigua, and it has been just a week since they had assembled for the camp at the 3Ws Oval in Barbados, most of them relinquishing their CPL duties while a few others joining after WICB President’s XI’s warm up games. In May, before the tri-series featuring South Africa and Australia, they had a Test specific camp in the High Performance Centre in Barbados for seven players.
“The camp was specifically for batsmen and spin bowlers. At this stage, we want the batsmen to focus on getting better against the slow bowlers. We want bowlers to look at ways to improve their art of spin bowling. In the coming months we will have Test matches against India and Pakistan – two higher-ranked teams – so we know we will face a lot of spin and we will play against players who are good players of spin,” Simmons had said before the camp.
The coach had also instructed some of his batsmen to practise playing spinners in the off-season. Then Simmons, not always a conventional batsmen in his youth, has mostly stuck to conventional methods in the nets. There was even a shade of leisureliness-not to be misinterpreted for slackness or a lack of intensity-during the practice.
Observing them go through the paces, there was nothing you could see as experimental or innovative, expect maybe opener Rajendra Chandrika testing his outside the off-stump discretion by placing a fourth stump, though in a fifth-stump line, a couple of yards behind the usual set of stumps (and he beheld the muscular Shannon Gabriel letting it somersault a couple of times) and Samuels receiving throwdowns with multi-coloured, hard-plastic dimpled balls spat out by bowling machines.
He would stand in the middle of the pitch and instruct the thrower to hurl full tosses in specific lines for a certain period. Otherwise, it was all plainly routine, Simmons shepherding his wards, entrenched in a central spot on the ground, surveying them like an observant schoolteacher, the instructions mostly barked out by his assistants. At times, he goes into a meditative shell.
Leaving no stone unturned
Anil Kumble is just his opposite, never struck to one spot of the ground, vibrantly mobile and constantly chatting with the players, patiently advising or explaining a particular plan he wants them to execute. He has blended a corporate manager-like discipline with the warmth of an elder brother. They are even antithetical in coaching methodology. Whereas Simmons has stuck on steadfastly to a more old-fashioned brand of coaching, Kumble has embraced an off-the-beaten path, weaving in corporate-world concepts with a hands-on approach shaped, nuanced and gleaned from his own vast experience as a player.
So he restored the buddy concept that former coach John Wright had implemented, engaged his players with drum session, then invited MS Dhoni and Sir Vivian Richards over for pep talks (in corporate parlance motivational speech), the fine for late comer’s and injecting a contagious intensity in the nets with a pronounced focus on simulating Test-match situation during practice.
So every day, during the preparatory camp in Bangalore, he’d ask his batsmen to bat out an entire session in pairs, the spinners to bowl lengthy spells and the slipsmen to stand just behind the centre wicket and for catching practising. Likewise, on the penultimate day of the camp, he took them to Alur on the suburbs, for a practice game wherein the rules were tweaked in such a way that he ensured everybody got sufficient time in the middle in as Test-like circumstance as possible.
The idea, predominantly, was to recreate a Test-match feel, a thread that they have carried on in the lead-up to the Test series. Sanjay Bangar further explains the obsession with match simulation, specifically on how it works for batsmen: “We have stressed on batting out sessions right from the simulations we have had in Bangalore. The entire intention has been batsmen batting sessions and we start and end a particular session well, to make sure whatever advantage we have got during that session we consolidate on that. We have spoken about that and batsmen have been making that sort of effort to imbibe that in their game. We said that if you bat two sessions you can return to the pavilion or if it was a two day game if you are happy with the way you have coped and happy with yourself mentally the batsmen were free to come back. And in the nets we generally work a lot on communication and emphasis on strike rotation that is why batting in pairs and make sure we are changing every four or five balls, rotating the strike, so those are the things we work on during the practice sessions.”
Bowlers, meanwhile, were asked to bowl with new balls in the morning sessions while they used scuffed up balls in the afternoon sessions.
The disparity in build-ups, though discernible, may not always matter eventually. In sports, you can see wonderfully structured and meticulously drilled teams concede defeat and conversely, seemingly unsystematic sides defying the long odds. West Indies believe they certainly can, though it seems to stem more from optimism than a realistic assessment of strengths.
Such an early upset, though, can revive the old Caribbean romance as well as spice up a series predicted to be blandly one-sided. But how they wished they had Chris Gayle.