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By Suresh Menon
There is something unreal about cricket in England right now. The visitors, West Indies, might go into the first Test without having had a full day's game of cricket in the build-up, thanks to the weather. A grandson of the more famous Dennis, Somerset's Nick Compton is on the verge of completing a thousand first class runs before the end of May, a feat last achieved by Graeme Hick in 1988. And some of the players who should have been in the West Indies squad – Chris Gayle being the prime example – are in India playing in the IPL. Sadness, joy and indifference are the English responses to these events.
The response to the West Indies fiasco – three of their players are yet to arrive thanks to visa problems – has been one of condescension of the kind the English media are so good at. Memories of broken bones and careers prematurely ended by the rampaging West Indies fast bowlers of the 1980s and 90s is clearly still fresh.
Yet how can West Indies, a great cricketing nation be so shorn of class and charisma? To a generation that grew up with Clive Lloyd, Viv Richards, Gordon Greenidge and a conveyor belt of fast bowlers, that is both unrealistic and disturbing. A massacre in England might push the game back further in a region that is already beginning to turn away from it. If there is a light at the end of the tunnel, no one has seen it yet.
Skipper Darren Sammy is a good man who likes to buy his mother expensive gifts, but when you keep a superior all rounder (Andre Russell) out of the team, it is difficult to be assertive and inspiring. The Mike Brearleys of the world come but rarely.
There is talk, as there has been for some time, of this notional country called the 'West Indies' (which exists only in the cricketing world) splitting into Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados and others as nation-teams. Only the thought that such a move would lead to even weaker teams (currently only Bangladesh are below the West Indies in the rankings) and the realisation that each of these countries would have to apply afresh for Test match status help maintain the status quo.
And yet, what is frustrating is not that the West Indies have arrived with a weak team, but that they have the core of a fine, transitional squad on their books. Imagine a top order with Gayle, Ramnaresh Sarwan, Shiv Chanderpaul easing in the younger players Adrian Barath, Darren Bravo, Kieron Pollard, Dwayne Bravo. Instead, Gayle, Pollard and Dwayne Bravo are in India, Sarwan is in Leicestershire. And everybody is fighting everybody else. Gayle is set to join the team for the one-day matches, though. Perthaps it is time the International Cricket Council had a formal window for the IPL which would enable all forms of the game to co-exist, and actually help Test cricket since players would not be forced to make a choice.
Whatever the merits of the standoff between the West Indies cricket board and its players, the result is a depleted side that evokes pity where it once evoked awe, while embarrassment replaces anticipation.
Yet – and this is the eternal hope of those who support the underdogs – a win (or even a draw, let's not aim too high) against England, currently the number one team in the world, might just be the tonic West Indies cricket needs. In Kemar Roach and Fidel Edwards they have the fast bowlers who could make a difference, but playing English bowling in English conditions is a challenge that even India could not cope with, and Chanderpaul apart no batsman seems to have the equipment to do so.
The cold, rain and blustery winds that are currently the feature of the English weather are not guaranteed to cheer up a team which arrived with only 12 players, one of whom was carrying an injury.
Still, it is the kind of weather that has suited Nick Compton. Compton, who was raised in South Africa, has been chosen for the England Lions team to play the West Indies in the last fixture before the Lord's Test. At 29, the batsman realises this might be his last chance to impress the selectors and break into the Test squad, so he will be praying hard for a full match too.
At any rate, I shall be at Lord's, cheering lustily even if without much conviction, for the underdogs.