ON FRIDAY, the real West Indies finally turned up. At least, the West Indies the world recognises and finds real, which in no way is a jab against Jason Holder & Co who gave their best in the ODIs. Considering how rarely they play international cricket together these days, it still somehow looked like those series finales of a long-running TV show where the star-cast makes an unexpected return, for one night only.
It’s not too far from the truth either. This is the series finale. And you also wonder whether all of them would have shown up if the T20 international on Sunday wasn’t against India, and this wasn’t the Sabina Park. Not that anyone’s complaining. There was the ‘Universe Boss’, Chris Gayle, shades and bandana on, looking “cooler than coolness mother” as they say in these parts, attending his first practice session for West Indies since before the World T20 final last March. Marlon Samuels, or ‘Icon’ as he’s called these days, wasn’t too far away, armed with his own camera crew shooting his training session and whatever he does around it. They weren’t the only ones.
Kieron Pollard and Carlos Brathwaite were busy hitting balls. Sunil Narine and Samuel Badree, meanwhile, were trying to make life difficult for them. The West Indies squad during the ODIs often resembled a bunch of talented yet hapless kids who were clearly way out of their league. Following the 5th ODI at Sabina Park, the West Indian youngsters, in fact, sought the audience of some of India’s high-profile stars just to share a few words with them. But here on Friday, the home team resembled an All Stars XI, which it pretty much was. And they walked and talked the part too. It was like the West Indies team had suddenly been infused with an overdose of swagger.
The return of the all-stars though means that Sunday’s match will at least start with both teams expected to play an evenly-matched standard of cricket. Holder & Co did manage to pull one back in the ODI series on a dicey pitch at Antigua, but more or less the result of the match has seemed inevitable from the start on most occasions over the last two-and-a-half weeks in the Caribbean.
If anything, West Indies as world champions will start the game as favourites just like they did during last year’s World T20 semi-final at Wankhede and the two games they played against India in Florida. For the record, India have only ever beaten the two-time T20 champions twice in this format in seven matches. The one exciting element from India’s perspective will be seeing young Rishabh Pant finally get a go for his first-ever international match on foreign soil and add to the solitary T20 he played against England earlier this year.
This will be Gayle’s first international on his home ground in over three years — the last being his 100th Test against New Zealand. Interestingly, this will be the first international T20 match to be held at Sabina Park too. With the party stand closed down due to litigation issues, the atmosphere might not be as boisterous and outré as usual but Sunday will see a packed crowd at Sabina Park, even if most of them inevitably will be Indians.
Bereft of glitz
Despite the star cast on both sides giving the match an IPL feel, the game will be bereft of the lights and the overall glitz. The match is of course scheduled to start at 10.30 am here, prime time in India but well before time in Jamaica, which means, according to one local, everyone will still get time to go to the beach after the game.
With the arrival of Gayle & Co, the star-gazing potential at the team hotel lobby to has gone up a few notches. The WIPA awards were held last night at the team hotel, and local Indian communities ended up purchasing four tables for the event, just so that they could get to meet and greet the Indian team members. And it’s learnt they had their fill during the one hour Virat Kohli & Co spent there. But the expat Indians didn’t leave soon after though. They hung around the lobby to snap a few selfies with the superstars, bosses and champions of the Caribbean, some even hanging on till nearly midnight when Gayle finally made an appearance and obliged them.
Earlier in the day, with coach Stuart Law by his side, Gayle had spoken about his long absence from international cricket and about how he was returning mainly because of the overwhelming calls for it. “If it was left to me I would have walked away, but at the same time fans keep requesting ‘don’t do it’. Youngsters are the future but the team needs experience at this stage,” he said. Gayle though insisted that this wasn’t quite the one-show-only kind of return to the big stage. Despite being 37 and having persistent knee trouble, he’s planning to stay on for another couple of years, and targeting the 2019 World Cup — for which West Indies haven’t qualified yet — as a swansong.
For that of course, Cricket West Indies will have to relax the rules set in place by former director Richard Pybus, which insists that only those who play a fixed number of domestic matches across all formats hold the right to be selected for the team. Though there have been talks of that rule being relaxed ever since Jimmy Adams took over from Pybus, there’s no sign of it. But Gayle is confident that even if doesn’t happen soon, he is prepared to push on and fulfil any criteria put in front of him.
Another World Cup in sight
“I am targeting another T20 World Cup and another 50-over World Cup for myself. I have to keep my fitness and can compromise and play the national tournaments. Most want popular players back in the team,” he said. While that might seem a far-fetched eventuality at the moment, the Universe Boss and his motley crew of T20 behemoths will put on a show on the final day of India’s Caribbean sojourn. And the action promises to be, in comparison the tepidness that was on show in the ODIs, as Jamaicans put it more entertaining than you can dream of, even if you dream two times.