A charmer with the willow

Ramnaresh Sarwan’s role will be crucial to West Indies’ resurgence. The expectations are immense. Given his shot-making ability and sound technique, Sarwan is the right man at No. 3. He inspires confidence, provides the side momentum and seizes the initiative from the bowlers, writes S. Dinakar.

Ramnaresh Sarwan’s batsmanship is underlined by footwork and balance — symbiotic elements. He is light on his feet and swift with his response. Batting appears one synchronised sequence when this West Indian waltzes in the middle.

If batting is segregated into three compartments — stance, feet movement and execution — Sarwan scores in all. His batting is wrapped in classicism. The stillness of his head, the position of his feet and the extension of his arms as Sarwan completes a cover drive is a spirit-lifting sight. He invariably pierces the field.

In the days of stand-and-deliver batting — hitting on the up with minimal feet movement is in vogue — watching a batsman dancing down to get to the pitch of the ball or using the depth of the crease to move back is reassuring. Sarwan is a great charmer with the willow, combining the West Indian flair and dare with delicate Indian wristwork. His methods are correct yet there is a distinct sense of adventure about his batting; this is a rare mix.

These are days when his mind and body seem to be in harmony. Sarwan is reading the situations better. His sense of timing — whether stroking the ball from the middle of the willow or timing his efforts to the needs of the team — has been impeccable.

In West Indies’ resurgence, Sarwan’s role will be critical. The expectations are immense. Given his shot-making ability and sound technique, Sarwan is the right man at No. 3. He inspires confidence, provides the side momentum and seizes the initiative from the bowlers. The little man has been a huge barrier for England in the Caribbean.

Numbers do not reflect the beauty of his batting but then the team would seek weighty contributions from its senior batsman. Indeed, Sarwan the team-man has come to the fore. In the process, the batsman from Guyana has managed to turn his career around — big time.

At the time of writing — one possible innings remained for Sarwan in the series against England — he had accumulated 612 runs in five innings at a whopping average of 122.40. Sarwan’s fluent 107 in Jamaica set up a famous win for the West Indies. His first innings 94 at Antigua highlighted his stroke-making ability, while his second innings 106 showcased his resolve; the West Indies hung on to a priceless draw. The pitches have been batsman-friendly and Sarwan has applied himself.

His epic 291 in Barbados saw Sarwan walk the extra yard for the team in a pressure situation. The natural gallopper on his ability was now putting a price on his wicket. In the 28-year-old Sarwan’s metamorphosis, his mind has been the key. A greater belief has been complemented by an increasing hunger for runs.

Much like Rohan Kanhai and Alvin Kallicharran — the other great batsmen of Indian origin from Guyana — Sarwan grew up in the tropical rainforests of Latin America. He chased his dream — cricket — relentlessly. Sarwan was prolific in junior cricket, was seen as someone bound for glory. Given his talent, he made the transition to the senior ranks rather effortlessly. An unbeaten 84 on debut against a varied and demanding Pakistan attack in Bridgetown in 2000 put him on the Test path.

Sarwan’s temperament and technique were probed subsequently. Being a compulsive hooker did not help his cause. With the trap set for him, the pacemen would bounce at Sarwan. And the batsman would often succumb.

When he toured down under in 2001-02, Sarwan’s three zeros in five innings saw him making news for the wrong reasons. Did he have the character to fight his way back?

Sarwan, subsequently, tightened his game. He played closer to the body while coping with lateral movement and attempted to get on top of the ball while essaying the hook. Sarwan still plays the hook but has increased his percentage of success.

His Test career — 5507 runs in 78 matches (before the Port of Spain Test) at 43.02 — would do most batsmen proud but then Sarwan is a 50-plus average batsman. This sunshine man from the sunny Caribbean belongs to the big league. Instances of impulse ruling over logic have undermined his career on occasions. Sarwan had to rein in his instincts without compromising on flair. He appears to be finding the right blend these days.

Sarwan is presenting a broad blade to the pacemen. And not many batsmen play spin better than he does. Sarwan plays with soft hands and a sure touch. He reads spin from the hand, picks the length early and provides himself the choice of playing the ball late.

Sarwan can milk the spinners with vertical bat strokes between long-on and long-off, can launch into bigger hits, or collect runs with horizontal blade shots such as the cut and the sweep. While stroking on the on-side, he plays in front of his pad, not around it.

In the days ahead, Sarwan will seek to improve his ‘away’ average. His 2124 runs in 36 Tests at 34.81 ‘away’ do not compare favourably with Sarwan’s home record of 3397 runs from 43 matches at 49.95. If delivering against Australia is one of the major yardsticks to judge a batsman, then Sarwan (he averages 32.50 in 12 Tests with two hundreds) has much catching up to do. His record in Australia — 218 runs in six Tests at 18.16 — screams for improvement.

He can cope well with bouncy tracks offering seam movement — Sarwan averages 49.00 from four Tests in South Africa with two hundreds — but appears to have been undone by the Aussie aggression and approach down under. Sarwan will certainly get opportunities to improve his record.

He does have this habit of making up for lost time. His first Test hundred surfaced after 27 Tests but Sarwan now has 14 of them. Along the way, he has imbibed much about innings-building skills. He has also displayed much fortitude to bounce back from a slew of injury concerns and the occasional loss of form — he was left out of a Test in Pakistan in the 2006-07 season. After a brief stint as captain, he has been a source of strength to Chris Gayle, the present skipper.

The West Indian batting is becoming increasingly resilient. While Gayle, Chanderpaul, and Sarwan have their places among the world’s leading batsmen, someone like Brendan Nash has added greater character to the line-up. And Jerome Taylor and Fidel Edwards form a potent pace bowling pair of contrasts and cutting edge.

As the legendary Michael Holding said, “Cricket is a cyclical game.” The West Indies could be turning the corner — at last.