Mohammed Siraj

TAKING HIS CHANCE: India paceman Mohammed Siraj celebrates the wicket of Australia’s Marnus

Labuschagne, on day four of the fourth Test at the Gabba in Brisbane, Australia, on Monday. Siraj ended with his first five-wicket haul in Tests. —Photo: AFP

It was a bright, clear afternoon last Wednesday, a good one for sighting the white ball. And the target for the Imran Khan XI was just 191 to get in a full 50 overs, with the early moisture in the Queen’s Park Oval pitch long burned off by the mid-morning sun.

No scoreboard pressure. In short, it was a lovely afternoon for batting in the Oval. But the Khan XI players didn’t seem to agree. Maybe lunch had settled deep in the stomachs of Tion Webster and Leonardo Julien and travelled down to their legs, because they couldn’t seem to lively themselves up in the opening overs of this Red Force trial match.

With the selectors watching and soon to sit together to pick the final squad for next month’s Regional Super50 series, this was a chance for the likes of Webster and Co to keep themselves in the conversation. But the message from the middle wasn’t positive.

The openers couldn’t get the ball away, the bowlers hardly being put under pressure. When the ball wasn’t going straight to the fielders, the batsmen were not exactly pounding up and down the pitch looking for runs.

“Two, two!” I caught myself saying more than once through my stuffy mask to batsmen who didn’t seem in a hurry at all.

Ok, maybe they were trying to follow Kieron Pollard from the morning. With his team reeling on 19 for three, the big man had gone to the crease, given himself time to settle and still did his usual Kieron Pollard business, picking up 95 at better than a run a ball with more sixes than fours.

Webster has the shots to put up stats like that. But he only got to 14 when he fell to Ravi Rampaul. West Indies Under-19 player Leonardo Julien, struggling mightily to get the ball away, eventually tried to lash Jayden Seales somewhere in the midwicket region but instead skied a top-edge that landed in wicketkeeper Denesh Ramdin’s gloves.

And when Julien’s replacement Kirstan Kallicharan gave Evin Lewis catching practice with a tame pull shot when he had reached 11, I decided to stretch my legs and retire to the coolness of the scorers’ room. At least the tedium would be more bearable there.

But Dwayne Bravo kept me from drifting off to sleep. From ball one he was looking to attack the bowling. His industry was contagious, and he pulled Isaiah Rajah along to set up what in the end was a comfortable win. I left the Oval before the final rites were performed. I left though with a familiar feeling of disappointment seeping through me.

Having seen bits of two other trial games, there was nothing in what I saw that told me that players in this Caribbean are finally moving on. There was the usual inconsistency from players who have been around for a while but still not established, and, with the odd exception, a lack of hunger for runs from those on the fringes.

From all he’s said and what I’ve been told, skipper Pollard has a clear idea of the standards he wants his team to meet and how he wants them to approach their cricket. But just like it takes time for the tides to change at Maracas Bay, it will take time for the messages he and team mentor Dwayne Bravo are sending to sink in. Time and much, much more effort.

Pollard and Bravo have played with the best in the world enough to know the load of work their Red Force colleagues have to do to become really good. And they must realise that generally speaking, that work is not being done. The reasons for that vary, and genuine ignorance of how to move their games along may be the prime obstacle for some players. But the repeated shortcomings that keen observers of the Red Force can pick up, could just as easily be identified in the players of the Barbados Pride, Jamaica Scorpions, Guyana Jaguars, Leeward Islands Hurricanes and Windward Islands Volcanoes.

It has been with a sense of near envy, therefore, that I have been watching India’s “reserves” giving Australia all they can handle in their Test series that would have ended in the wee hours of yesterday morning.

After the thrashing India received with expectant daddy Virat Kohli leading them in the first Test, I couldn’t imagine that the series would end 2-1 in India’s favour. In this last game at the Gabba, the tourists— led now by Anjinka Rahane in Kohli’s absence—battled without any of their first choice bowlers and yet, Tim Paine’s side were not able to put them away.

Seamlessly, the Indian bench has stepped into the toughest environment for a touring side and filled the breach, magnificently

Monday’s hero was new ball bowler Mohammed Siraj, who like teammates Shubman Gill and Mayank Agarwal were part of India’s “A” team that toured the Caribbean successfully in 2019.

Siraj took his first five-wicket Test haul in the Aussie second innings, bowling with skill and persistence. Fellow seam rookie Shardul Thakur also did not serve up “food” for David Warner, Steve Smith, Marnus Labuschagne and the rest. And overall, the Indian backup bowlers looked ready for Test cricket. They seemed to have mastered the basics of being able to land the ball consistently where they wanted and thus didn’t make nonsense of the fields their skipper set. Even better, the Indian reserves were ready to deal with the mental pressure of taking on an Australian side desperate to win back the Border/Gavaskar trophy. On the final morning yesterday, opener Gill stepped up. Sound, watchful but always ready to play his shots, his 91 laid the foundation for Rishabh Pant to take India to a famous three-wicket win going at 328.

I cannot with any confidence say I expect to see the same standard from the West Indies newbies who have been sent to Bangladesh because of the mass withdrawals due to ‘Covid’ worries. Their preparation for stepping onto cricket’s highest stage has not been near adequate. It is an old story. Too old.

Sir Clive Lloyd tried to inspire the boys in Bangladesh with his open letter to them; a noble gesture from a legend still passionate about Windies cricket. But Joshua Da Silva, Akeal Hosein, Kjorn Ottley, Kyle Mayers and Kavem Hodge need more than goodwill right now. They need to do some Indian imitation.


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