Wednesday, 23 May 2012

West Indies and memories of Atherton's Young Lions

Like your favourite childhood meal or that desperately meaningful teenage film, there is something about formative memories that make them the most poignant. West Indies' 1st Test defeat was hardly pulsating cricket but watching a struggling team scrapping to pick itself up off the mat did stir bittersweet recollections of England's 90s woes.

Myopic and Anglo-centric though that is, it is an interesting thought. Back then England were the team playing under the shadow of its past; where the names of former legends weighed heavily on a group of young, inexperienced players. Cricket in 90s England felt uncared for, unfashionable and in a state of unflinching decline.

So throughout the Lord's Test, I kept asking myself just which 90s period were West Indies in? Alec Stewart's prim yes-men? Nasser Hussain's early streetfighters? Or how about the first throes of Mike Atherton's leadership?

It's difficult to place but the approach Ottis Gibson and Darren Sammy are adopting – with senior players dumped in favour of a brick-by-brick rebuilding – reminded me of the time the sides met in 1994.

“Young Lions are going to go” sung the Skysports intro music to that series (“back to the pavilion,” my brother used to add). Atherton, in his first full series in charge, was without Graham Gooch who had top-scored the previous Ashes summer but opted out of touring. Likewise, Mike Gatting and John Emburey were left out as a Atherton backed a clutch of youngsters - including Nasser Hussain, Graham Thorpe, Mark Ramprakash – to tour the world's best team.

“My vision," wrote Atherton in his autobiography, "was of a group of young, athletic and talented players with the dedication to work hard and grow together, taking a few knocks along the way but coming through on the other side.”

The 1st Test, on a Sabina Park flyer, was not unlike this one at Lord's. England mixed talent with brain-fades to slide to an under-par, though not disastrous, 234 batting first and conceded a first-innings deficit of 173. An innings defeat looked distinctly possible at 63 for 4 but England fought to 267 on the back of Hick's heartbreaking 96, leaving a small target that West Indies knocked off easily enough. Defeat, sure, but not humiliation and enough for genuine positivity about the youthful project.

Through the series England were maddeningly inconsistent with an innings defeat the next game and that horrorshow finish to lose a match they had dominated in Trinidad. The stunning victory in Barbados (“historic,” I remember Willis repeating on commentary) followed by a draw in Lara's first world-record at Antigua was enough for Atherton to recall: "I was happy with my efforts on the tour... The team was beginning to take shape in my mind. New Zealand were soon to arrive in England and I felt sure it was the perfect opportunity to achieve some long overdue success."

Yet by the following winter, England's new 'supremo' manager-selector Ray Illingworth, had lost patience with Atherton's ideal and the young lions were exchanged for old soldiers. Back for the Ashes came Gatting and Gooch, who both retired by the series' conclusion as England slumped to a 3-1 loss. It took another four years - and a plunge below Zimbabwe and New Zealand in the Test rankings - before Hussain and Fletcher finally turned England's tide.

Gibson and Sammy's stated aim is to restore pride in West Indies cricket. Their rush to do so has left some high-profile casualties. It was sad to hear Ramnaresh Sarwan talk about how managements' public criticism of his attitude had broken him. Clearly in form Sarwan would add much more than Kirk Edwards. But Gibson and Sammy's thinking – a star team over a team of stars - is right and progress is being made in a way that has not happened before.

The flashes of promise in West Indies barren recent years have been on the back of outstanding individual feats. Lara in the 2-2 draw against Australia in 1999, Jerome Taylor's freak spell to flatten England ten years later. This time, after fight against India, Australia and again at Lord's, the progress feels deeper.

The limit, though, seems to have been reached. Thanks to the impoverished and incompetent WICB, gifted players are missing, itself a significant block to improvement. Yet it's also Sammy's ability, as batsman, bowler and captain, that his holding his mission back. Atherton in 1994 was the best player in the team and if supported could have led a youthful team forward in his image. Unless Sammy can improve, his lack of class will eventually undermine both his authority and the values he and Gibson are looking to instil.

When the fall-out happens, though, West Indies would do well to avoid the tried-tested-and-failed approaches of the past. It's up to the younger players being trusted by management now to carry the fighting attitude forward.