Heading into their final Super 12 match of the World Cup, the Sri Lankan playing XI had a combined T20 experience of 759 matches – domestic, franchise and international cricket put together. In the opposition ranks were Kieron Pollard (572 appearances), Dwayne Bravo (511) and Chris Gayle (452). West Indies, the defending champions battling for survival, boasted a staggering 2,852 T20 caps.
In normal course, that would have been a decisive factor. There is very little, however, that falls in the ‘normal course’ category in 20-over cricket, especially with a bunch of weary veterans pitted against motivated young turks.
West Indies played exactly like the ageing, tired, running-on-empty outfit they resembled. Especially in the field, they were sluggish, lethargic and exposed by the massive outfields that necessitated youthful, speedy legs and powerful arms. It wasn’t hard to see why; Pollard is 34 years old, Bravo 37, Gayle 12 days shy of turning 42. Throw in Ravi Rampaul (36) and injury-riddled Andre Russell (33) to go with reserves Andre Fletcher (33) and Lendl Simmons (36), and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why their title defence came apart at the seams.
Twenty20 cricket is a young person’s game. Sure, there is a place for experience, but unless you are Chennai Super Kings helmed by the extraordinary Mahendra Singh Dhoni, it is not the stage for ‘oldsters’. West Indies learnt that harsh reality while slipping to three defeats in four matches, signifying the end of their campaign. This should also signify the end of an era, the era of the Gayles and the Bravos and the Rampauls that was ultra-successful when they still had bottle, but that’s now definitively running on empty.
The Caribbeans’ standout performers on Thursday night in Dubai were Nicholas Pooran and Shimron Hetmyer, the two left-handed batsmen upon whom it will be incumbent to step up immediately. Pooran is 25, the vice-captain and clearly not just one for the future but also the one expected to take over as leader from Pollard, maybe as early as before the next World Cup in Australia, in 11 months’ time. Hetymer is a year younger, and played a lone hand after Pooran’s cameo, single-handedly mounting an assault on Sri Lanka’s 189 for three. Indeed, had it not been for his unbeaten 81, West Indies would have been hard pressed to touch even 150, let alone their final, insufficient tally of 169 for eight.
Tellingly, Pooran (46) and Hetmyer were the only two batsmen to reach double figures. The celebrated troika of Gayle, Pollard and Russell mustered a frugal three runs between them. The dichotomy between the exciting present pregnant with promise and the glorious past now stuttering and stumbling couldn’t have been more pronounced.
More than with the bat, West Indies stood badly exposed with the ball and in the field. When they went all the way in 2012 and 2016 under Daren Sammy, they were every bit the complete package they appeared. There was penetration and variety in the bowling, agility and alacrity whilst fielding, and unfettered ball-striking which meant no ground or target was too big. Cut to the present, and very few of these facets made more than a fleeting appearance.
Coach Phil Simmons must have cast slightly envious eyes at the opposition camp. Sri Lanka are in the process of sorting themselves out following the retirements of a host of legends and the nonchalant, irresponsible conduct of the bunch touted to be the successors to Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene and Tillakaratne Dilshan. The talented but immature trio of Kusal Mendis, Niroshan Dickwella and Avishka Gunathilaka is serving out one-year bans for breaching the bio-bubble during the tour of England in June, necessitating the authorities to spread the net in the hope of landing a few fish that they could invest in for the future.
In that exercise, they have unearthed Charith Asalanka, the former Under-19 skipper, and Pathum Nissanka, a wonderful opening batsman, who should serve the country with distinction for a long time if they don’t stray from the straight and narrow. In leggie Wanindu Hasaranga, they have the No. 1-ranked T20I bowler in the world, who heads a fabulous bowling group with pace, guile and cunning. Dasun Shanaka is coming into his own as a leader of men after taking charge in difficult circumstances.
Several of their current choices were forced on the selectors owing to a variety of reasons. What must make them proud is that most have grabbed their chances and delivered, compensating for lack of experience with a raging inner fire that is a wonderful augury. That manifested itself in the enjoyment they derived from their mates’ success, which in turn catalysed greater energy, purpose and drive in the middle.
There is a lesson in it for West Indies. Staying rooted to the past, however, celebrated it might have been, is nothing if not counter-productive. There are only so many positions where fielders can be hidden in the rough and tumble of 20-over shootouts. Pollard had the unenviable task of leading out a side in which at least a half-dozen fielders stuck out a boot because they couldn’t bend down quickly enough to make a regulation stop or escorted the ball to the boundary because they had neither the speed nor the nous to pull off the sliding stops that have ceased to be a novelty.
Admittedly, turning to youth for the sake of it is embarking on a path fraught with danger, but because of their lack of foresight, West Indies are now in a position where they have no option but to do so. The turnaround time between the two World Cups is minimal. Bravo has already announced his decision to retire from international cricket after this tournament; for the Caribbeans with a proud legacy to aspire to climb the rungs again, they will have to gently – or not – nudge a few other giants toward the exit door if they are not ready to go on their own.