Even from 30 yards out, the silhouettes in sky blue were distinctly identifiable. A short man with a slouchy gait accompanied by a shorter, tauter one. Brian Lara and Ramnaresh Sarwan are back together. Rated among the best from this region, they belong to West Indies cricket’s twilight zone — late broadcaster Tony Cozier called their era the interlude between their vaulting heights and the dizzy fall.
West Indies cricket’s plunge to the pits is perhaps complete, but the two old pals are stitching together another rescue act. They are running a week-long camp to fine-tune their Test batsmen and share their collective experience of 17,795 runs and 49 hundreds.
Soon after discussing the finer points of the game with the batsmen, Lara lumbered back to the sight-screen and plunged into a chair. Sarwan called out Jason Holder. He grabbed the bat from the West Indies captain and told him he was getting way too forward, making drive-able deliveries less so. Holder has a big forward press, a trait that makes a batsman suspect against inward-bending deliveries. “A couple of inches back would be fine,” said Sarwan.
Holder trudged back, marked a patch on the ground where his front foot should be and pointing out a spot further up, requested Sarwan to bowl there. “Think the bowler would tell you where he’s gonna bowl?” Sarwan ribbed the batsman. He followed it with a short ball assault on Holder’s rib-cage.
Sarwan then sprinted back to Lara. He still retains a spring in his step. At 39, he is a year younger than Chris Gayle. Then something stopped him in his stride. It was an airy shot from West Indies cricket’s big hope, the technically sound Shai Hope. “Did you play it intentionally?” he queried. The batsman nodded his head. “Good shot, but next time keep it through the ground! That looks better,” Sarwan chimed in.
Sarwan himself wasn’t averse to playing a few air-borne strokes, Lara played those dime a dozen. But the present crop of Caribbean batsmen does it more frequently and less effectively. Sarwan agreed with the assessment: “They can definitely improve their shot-selection in Test matches. That’s one of the areas we are trying to tell them. We are not looking to change their technique or anything, not anything majorly, but advise them about the little things in their batting that could make them better Test batsmen, give them inputs regarding how to pace a Test innings, how to score big runs, based on our experience.”
To an extent, Sarwan himself can relate to this fallacy, his tendency to play an unwarranted extravagant shot, a reason his 50s count is twice the number of his Test hundreds. He could bat long, as evident during his 291 against England in 2009, but not always did he meet the required level of application. In an interview to Trinidad Guardian, he blamed it for plateauing in the second half of his career: “I wish I was more careful with my shots. I would have got more 100s and my average would have been in the higher 40s.”
It’s this regret that made him all the more motivated to help the next generation of Caribbean players out. “You feel you can help them fulfill what you couldn’t. There are some exceptionally gifted batsmen amongst us, as it always had been, and it would be a shame if they don’t scale the heights. A bit of direction and polishing would go a long way,” Sarwan said.
A cursory skim through their records adequately reveals their failing. The eight capped batsmen they’ve picked have eked out only 29 hundreds in a combined 459 innings, which’s an underwhelming conversion rate by any yardstick. Consequently, none of them have their averages in the 40s or above — Darren Bravo’s 38 is the highest. And only Bravo and Kraigg Brathwaite have scored double hundreds. It sums up the plight as much as their cricket director Jimmy Adams’ desperate SOS to his old friends. “The good thing is most of them are young and still early in their careers. So they have time to learn and improve,” said Sarwan.
At the core of his coaching philosophy is a deep understanding of the various subcultures in Carribean cricket, often loosely typecast as Calypso cricket. “In our days, we all batted differently. Lara, Shiv, (Marlon) Samuels and myself, we were all different. It has been the West Indies way, and a lot of factors play in it. So we should always work in this framework. We should understand that different batsmen have different techniques and we should work within it and try to maximise the possibilities,” he pointed out.
Sarwan was a predominantly off-side player, because the off-side was shorter on his club ground. “In the yard, the boundaries on the offside were much shorter than the ones on the legside. Even when we used to practice at club level, they used to put us close to the boundary on the offside, and generally I favour the offside a bit. So I turned out to be a better player on the off-side,” he said.
Just then, Roston Chase approached him with another doubt, this time pertaining to his bowling. Sarwan told him to get more shoulder into the action, so that he could get more bite out of the surface. He made the required correction immediately, and the next delivery at Holder spat back viciously into him, battering into the knee-roll of Holder’s 6-feet-6 frame. A visibly pleased Holder placed his request: “More of these, please!”
All ears to the doubts, apprehensions and insecurities of the batsmen, Sarwan, however, said he and Lara aren’t miracle workers.
At this point, the greatest miracle man of West Indies cricket, Lara, walked in. So did a new pair of batsmen.