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CW World Cup Countdown. Day 13 - West Indies
09 Mar 2007
By: Liam Camps


As part of a series of articles leading up to the World Cup, Cricket Web presents a daily review on the background, players and prospects a specific competing team, starting with the minnows and building up to the favourites. Today we feature the West Indies.

Introduction

Thrice finalists and twice champions, the West Indies dominated the World Cup at its inception. Yet it is only now, with such domination a distant memory, that the tournament has arrived in the Caribbean. A team with such a rich heritage in cricket, this is the sport that unites a region of unique islands to one common desire. David Rudder's rally call may have been replaced by a string of more modern and less passionate anthems, but the premise remains the same. And come time to compete for the greatest prize in the sport, the entire Caribbean will "rally 'round the West Indies".

Lead up to the tournament:

Given a record of 6 losses in 8 matches leading into the tournament, the West Indies cannot state claim to the best of form. The World Cup hosts travelled to Pakistan and India and suffered 3-1 defeats in both one-day international series. Further consideration reveals more impressive form, however. The West Indies swept past Zimbabwe and India 9-1 in last year's home stand, then proceeded to reach the final of two multi-team tournaments - the DLF Cup and the pretender to the World Cup, the Champions Trophy. Australia took the top prize in both tournaments, but the performances were encouraging enough to set the West Indies in good stead heading into the World Cup.

The West Indies returned home from a difficult away series in New Zealand in early 2006. The team was greeted pleasantly by an embattled Zimbabwe and consequently a 5-0 victorious result. Fast bowler Jerome Taylor was the find of the series, returning triumphantly from injury to prove the talisman of the West Indies bowling attack. Taylor continued his superb form against the touring India, and the home side rattled off 4 consecutive wins after a close defeat in the first match. The 4-1 result for the West Indies was impressive not just in statement but also in manner. There was a level of encouraging intensity in the performance, and one that carried on for the most part throughout the year.

Contributions were evident from all aspects of the team, with the likes of Marlon Samuels, Dwayne Bravo and Runako Morton joining the more fashionable stars in success. The West Indies rematched against India in the DLF Cup, also joined by Australia in the Malaysia-based tournament. The first match posed a disappointing stumble to defeat. In the chase of 280 for victory, the West Indies raced to 172-1 within 24 overs, then collapsed to 201 all out. Such a performance would have devastated the Caribbean side of recent incarnations, but under Brian Lara the team played with greater confidence and purpose. Fortunes were back on course a day later. Victorious over India and Australia secured a spot in the final, where the West Indies were bowled out for 113 to lose by 137 runs.

It was much the same formula in the Champions Trophy that followed. The West Indies qualified alongside Sri Lanka from a pool involving Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, then scored wins over Australia, India and South Africa en route to another final matchup against Australia. It was there that Lara's men once against stumbled, this time bowled out for 138 batting first, and were defeated by 8 wickets. Onward to Pakistan and India, where although again a competitive outfit, the West Indies could not claim victories for their enthusiasm. How much of the confidence of 2006 still remains with the tournament hosts is a pressing question. The immediate buildup has not been ideal, but the appearance of this West Indies outfit suggests an ability to rebound from defeat far quicker and more convincingly than in recent years past.

Players to watch:

Chris Gayle
For the majority of 2006, Chris Gayle stood firmly as one of the most effective players in ODI cricket. Explosive at the top of the order, Gayle racked up 3 hundreds over the course of the year. He complemented such potency with economical and penetrative offspin. In particular Gayle dominated at the Champions Trophy in India, where the West Indies reached the final for the second consecutive instalment of the tournament. There, he scored 474 runs (79 average) and took 8 wickets (23.12). The West Indies will search for much of the same form as Gayle returns to the Caribbean, where his batting record has never lived up to the expectations posed by overseas achievements.

Batting and bowling, Gayle offers great flexibility and depth to the home side. As offspinning allrounders go, few are as potent with the bat as Gayle, nor as effective at the tailend of an innings. Rain or shine, he can be expected to sport his shades and unique aura of coolness. Perhaps the Champions Trophy was merely a warmup for the real show.

Kieron Pollard
The clear unknown quantity in the West Indies team, Pollard presents explosive batting and useful bowling options. At the Stanford Twenty20 tournament in 2006, he stirred the imagination of the masses with his clean ballstriking. But it was Pollard's form in 2007 that truly whet the appetites of cricket fans in the West Indies and around the world alike. Pollard stormed into first-class and List-A one-day cricket, scoring big at the outset without losing his trademarked flair.

Despite his good form, Pollard's inclusion came as a surprise, given how close to the World Cup he factored into the equation. The 19-year-old joins the West Indies team for the first time and will hope to justify his selection at the expense of more experienced and proven options. One of the many reasons to watch the West Indies at this tournament, Pollard attracts similar curiousity as Theo Walcott for England at football's World Cup last year. If he gets more of an opportunity than Walcott - a debut - all eyes will be on his advances.

Brian Lara
If greatness is indeed to be celebrated, Brian Lara would singlehandedly draw crowds to West Indies matches. The West Indies captain runs the final lap of his career and hopes to press on strongly down the line as the World Cup arrives in the Caribbean. Hardly is there better motivation for the West Indies to win, than for Lara to receive a hearty send-off on West Indies soil. Twice he has broken the world Test batting record in front of a West Indian audience, becoming the first man to reach 400 in the process. Indeed, there are few things that the great left-hander has not achieved, and a share of the World Cup would be a fairytale ending to an exceptional career. Recent form may not put Lara in good stead for the tournament, as shuffling up and down the batting order has taken a toll on his effectiveness and batting average. But we still expect greatness. Brian Charles Lara deserves such expectations.

Strengths

There are few batting lineups in the world that can match the West Indies for potency on a given day. Boasting surnames such as Gayle, Chanderpaul, Sarwan and Lara, the West Indies can claim to one of the most threatening lineups of talent, if only consistency (and lack thereoff) is taken into account. Chasing, the West Indies can overhaul any total, and that will likely be the plan of action for captain Lara at the World Cup. The team looks so much more formidable and in control when attacking a target than when defending one.

Depth is supplied by the allround talents of Marlon Samuels, Dwayne Bravo and Dwayne Smith, along with the ever-reliable Gayle. Under Bennett King, the West Indies strategy to success has seen a deep batting lineup, even stretching as far as number 10 on occasion. At times it does lead to complacency in confirming a seeming cruise to victory, but it has also often served to arrest a top order collapse, still too frequent for comfort. If the West Indies do not play to their strength and bat consistently well at the World Cup, disappointment can be expected again.

Weaknesses

As clear cut as black and white, bowling is the weakness of this West Indies team. This is not to say that there is a shortage of talent, however. In Corey Collymore and Ian Bradshaw, they have two of the most reliable and consistent bowling options in the world. But it is Jerome Taylor who has been grabbing headlines over the past 12 months. So often injuries have ruined the career of talented young bowlers, but Taylor beams a story of career revival, and at the age of 22 he has returned from a serious back injury and with outstanding success.

The precise fact that young Taylor is by far the most potent threat in the West Indies bowling attack is cause for concern. As per usual there is talent in the ranks, but not an attack worthy of high expectations. Daren Powell and Dwayne Bravo will need to step up with the ball, and the world waits to see whether Taylor can continue to shine so brightly. This is not an attack that can be expected to defend moderate totals, and certainly not as capable of achieveing victory as the batting counterpart.

Previous World Cups

Only Australia have won the World Cup more times than the West Indies. In 1975 and 1979, and indeed the most part of 1983, the West Indies team held the monopoly on World Cup success. In recent years it has been Australia, predictably dominating on the grandest stage in the sport. The West Indies have not only failed to win since 1979, but have not reached the final since a shock defeat to India in 1983. Some 24 years and 5 tournaments have passed since, and now the stage is set, grounded on Caribbean soil for the first time.

In 1996 the West Indies seemed on course for the final, but stumbled at the tournament's penultimate hurdle, and collapsed to an unlikely defeat at the hands of Australia in the semi-final round. In 1999 it was slightly less of a disappointment, as lowered expectations were met with a failure to reach the second round. And though expectations in 2003 were raised after a tight opening win over South Africa, the West Indies crashed out in the first round again, without stirring much surprise. They did suffer at the claws of the weather, however. It was a failure that was overshadowed by South Africa's dramatic and embarrassing (and also weather-related) exit, and at least the West Indies were not alone in being tipped to the Super Six stage by the less famous likes of Kenya.

As far as expectations go, none have been higher for an improving West Indies team to shine on home turf.

1975: Winners
1979: Winners
1983: Runners-up - Lost to India
1987: Group Stage
1992: Group Stage
1996: Semi-finalists - Lost to Australia
1999: Group Stage
2003: Group Stage

Predicted Finish

Brian Lara has stated that he aims to take the team to the semi-final stage as a minimal achievement. And given the form of the West Indies for most of the last year, it is not a distant possibility. The West Indies have always played better at home and though there will be pressure to cast off an apparent curse of the host nation - a tendency to fail - this team can be expected to compete far greater than any of World Cups recently passed. Passage to the Super Eight stage should not be too difficult, given the format of the competition, but it is then that the real trials arrive. Winning the World Cup in the Caribbean, amidst Lara's last hurrah, would be a dream sublime beyond measure. But making the semi-final is the most immediate dream at hand. If the performances chasing the last two Champions Trophies are any indication of ability in multi-nation tournaments, the West Indies can go all the way, but need to start well.

West Indies World Cup squad

Brian Lara (captain), Ramnaresh Sarwan, Denesh Ramdin, Chris Gayle, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Daren Powell, Kieron Pollard, Dwayne Bravo, Corey Collymore, Jerome Taylor, Dwayne Smith, Ian Bradshaw, Devon Smith, Marlon Samuels, Lendl Simmons.

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