Better late than never

TONY COZIER

AT the age of 33, fast bowlers' thoughts usually turn to life after cricket. Instead, Vasbert Drakes has been contemplating a belated international career.

Vasbert Drakes, the best West Indian bowler against Bangladesh in the recent one-day series.

Through a complex set of circumstances, Drakes gained his first Test cap on December 8 in the first Test against Bangladesh, precisely seven years and nine months after he first wore the maroon West Indies colours in a one-day international against Australia in his native Barbados in 1995.

``You know, life's funny and I never entirely dismissed the chance of playing for West Indies again,'' he said. ''I always knew that if it did come along, I'd be ready.''

The last time he had represented the West Indies was in county matches on the 1995 tour of England when he was called in as a replacement for Winston Benjamin, expelled from the team for indiscipline. After that, he chose to earn his living professionally in South African provincial cricket for Border and in English county cricket with Sussex, Nottinghamshire and Warwickshire.

His absence from West Indies domestic tournaments rendered him ineligible for selection until last August when, with no overseas commitments, he was part of the champion Barbados team in the Red Stripe Bowl limited-overs tournament and became qualified once more under the relaxed West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) regulation.

Even then, he was initially chosen solely for the one-day team for the ICC Champions Trophy in Sri Lanka and the recent series in India, principally with next year's World Cup in South Africa in mind.

His way into the Test team was opened by the back injury that eliminated the premier fast bowler, Merv Dillon, from the short tour to Bangladesh, by his own experience and by his return of four top order wickets in each of the three preceding one-day internationals against Bangladesh.

Vasbert Drakes and Ridley Jacobs celebrate after Drakes had taken the wicket of India's Anil Kumble during the second one-day International in Nagpur on November 9, 2002. "The one-day series in India was a big tester for me. The margin for error was so small on those pitches and against that strong batting," Drakes said. He was the leading wicket-taker on either side in the high scoring series in India with 10 in the seven matches.

Using the new ball alongside Pedro Collins, his fellow Barbadian from a neighbouring village in the north of the island, he claimed a wicket with his fifth ball and contributed to Bangladesh's typically limp first innings of 139 with four for 64.

Confidence and self-belief have eased the transition back into international cricket.

``I back myself that I have the ability to compete at this level,'' he stated.

''I'm not saying I might be a world beater but when you play in county cricket and in South Africa against guys who play in that environment, you know you can hold your own.''

Drakes has more than held his own in South Africa. Twice, in 1997-98 and 1998-99, he was named Player of the Year.

He is realistic enough to appreciate that his eventual chance at Test cricket has come against the weakest of opponents. Bangladesh were granted full international status two years ago and lost 14 of their 15 Tests since, 10 by an innings.

``The one-day series in India was a very big tester for me,'' Drakes explained. ''The margin for error was so small on those pitches and against that strong batting. Coming to Bangladesh against lesser opponents, it was easier to bowl.''

Drakes was the leading wicket-taker on either side in the high scoring series India with 10 in the seven matches — but the average was 31.2 runs a wicket and the economy rate 5.7 runs an over. His return in three matches in Bangladesh was 12, the average was 6.2 and the economy rate 2.88.

He is adamant that he feels as physically fit as he did when he was 10 years younger.``I realise that the older you get, if you want to sustain your performance and the endurance levels, you've got to do more work than the younger guys so I make a conscious effort to put more effort on the physical side of things.''

He has returned to a basically young team in which the majority of players are trying to establish themselves, just as he must do.

``The environment has been a lot more relaxing than when I first came in,'' he said. ''The players are a lot more open with each other and there's not a lot of big egos around.''

``The beauty about the young guys is that they interact with each other,'' he added. ''You can sit down with them and discuss the game and share different views. They're all eager to swap ideas.''

So, now that he's in, for how much longer does he see himself continuing?

``I haven't really set myself any long-term goals,'' he responded. ''The most difficult thing at this level is performance and I've got to be on top of my game once I step out on the park.

``I've got to be disciplined and focussed from that aspect,'' he added. ''As long I'm doing well and maintain my fitness, I'd like to continue playing.''

Well, Courtney Walsh went on until he was 38, didn't he?