Consistency elusive

Will the host prove to be the toast? Brian Lara would certainly like that to happen.-AP Will the host prove to be the toast? Brian Lara would certainly like that to happen.

On the smaller grounds of the Caribbean, defending targets may not be easy. So the West Indies, not renowned for pacing its innings, would be better off batting second, writes S. Dinakar.

As host, the burden of expectations will be on the West Indies. The Brian Lara-led side is not without ability, but has, in the run-up to the World Cup, lacked consistency.

Playing in familiar conditions will give the side an edge, particularly in the tight games. The pressures of competing at home, though, can cut both ways.

The Caribbeans will be seeking lost glory. After the triumphs in 1975 and '79, and the final appearance four years later, the West Indians have had just one semifinal finish ('96) in the subsequent World Cups.

The reasons have been many, from the decline of the West Indian pace attack to a lack of discipline in batting. The side, with the 2004 Champions Trophy triumph in England being an exception, has not delivered collectively.

The conflict between the players and the board over payments and endorsements has often made more news than the performance of the team. In the past, West Indian cricket had been associated with the romance of the game.

In fact, the greatest challenge before coach Bennett King, when he took over, was to instil a feeling of togetherness among the cricketers drawn from different nations. To a limited extent, he has succeeded.

In this context, the appointment of Clive Lloyd as manager has been significant. The Big Cat led the West Indies, with blistering stroke-makers and explosive pacemen, to the top in the 1970s and 80s. More importantly, the side was united — Lloyd's men hummed as one.

The West Indian performances were also underlined by a sense of pride.

Where has that pride gone?

Indeed, the West Indies has been through some very troubled times. The seniors were not delivering, and the youngsters not coming through. World Cup 2007 could change it all.

Lara's side can pack a punch. The side's batting is strong, particularly in the pitches of the Caribbean, where there would not be alarming deviation off the seam.

The pitches have been relaid, but as Indian coach Greg Chappell pointed out, the texture of the soil could be the same. Some of the surfaces could play faster, but there is unlikely to be enough grass on the pitch to assist seam movement.

The smaller grounds of the Caribbean will also help the West Indian cause. The host, surprisingly, is not the most athletic of fielding sides. And this is a batting line-up that plays a lot of strokes in the air. On a bigger ground, some of the hits would be lapped up on the outfield.

The dynamics of defending a total on smaller grounds are different. Here the twos and the threes may be hard to score. But a boundary or a six can be more easily achieved.

Defending targets might have roadblocks. The West Indies will be better off chasing since the side does not always pace its innings well — the collapse after a blazing start in the Champions Trophy final in Mumbai is a case in point. In the same competition, West Indies had swept aside South Africa in Jaipur, batting second in the semifinals.

The side might benefit if it has a specific target in mind. However, Lara's decision, if he wins toss, will hinge on the conditions of the day. This includes the weather, and how much early help the pitch could offer to the pacemen.

This is a side with plenty of batting firepower. Chris Gayle is a feared striker, who can swing games in a matter of overs. On a stage as big as the World Cup, the Caribbeans will require the southpaw to bat till the later stages of the innings. Shivnarine Chanderpaul, a contrasting left-hander, can be deceptively quick with his scoring rate.

Skipper Lara, in his World Cup swansong, will be the man for the pressure situations. In a big game, this match-winner can be dangerous.

Ramnaresh Sarwan of twinkling footwork needs to focus and construct an innings. The side would be seeking more than a few bright shots from this talented cricketer.

Marlon Samuels, under the ICC scanner for conversing with an alleged bookie, is a gifted shot-maker. It remains to be seen though how the controversy plays on his mind. All-rounder Dwayne Bravo is a fluent batsman, particularly on the on-side. The West Indies has the batting might.

The speedy Jerome Taylor, who can maintain a straight line around the off-stump, has the ability to bowl both at the beginning and the end. He can swing the new ball away, and then, reverse swing the old one. Daren Powell can move the ball around at a lively pace. Left-arm paceman Ian Bradshaw brings control and accuracy to the attack, if not pace (he could be bowled out by Lara before the 30-over mark). Corey Collymore has the experience.

The likely West Indian pace attack should read: Taylor, Powell, and Bradshaw, with all-rounder Dwayne Bravo contributing with his medium pace. The side does not have a specialist spinner. However, the off-spin of Gayle and Samuels has proved useful for the Caribbeans in the past.

The West Indies is placed with Pakistan, Zimbabwe and Ireland in Group `D'. The host should top the group. A semifinal place is not out of its reach. From there on, it is anybody's World Cup.

Players to watch

Brian Lara: At 37, he remains a match-winning batsman and an inspirational captain. A left-hander of limitless ability, Lara will be seeking a title triumph in his fifth World Cup. Whether easing the ball through the gaps or striking over the infield, Lara does it better than most. He is the key man in the West Indian middle-order since he handles pressure better than the rest. Despite the 3-1 reverse in India in the run-up to the World Cup, Lara leads an improved side. In 290 ODIs, Lara has 10136 runs at 40.54 (Strike Rate 79.46) with 19 hundreds.

Chris Gayle: Arguably the most explosive top-order batsman in contemporary cricket. The left-handed Gayle, striking the ball with power and precision, is hard to contain in the power play overs. He can also progress to bigger scores as his 15 ODI hundreds indicate. On the smaller West Indian grounds, Gayle's value to the side is enhanced; even mishits could clear the fence. He is also an under-rated off-spinner. Gayle can surprise the batsmen with a very useful quicker ball. The 27-year-old off-spinner has also bowled intelligently at the death. In 159 ODIs, Gayle has 5696 runs at 38.74 (SR 80.21). He also has 134 wickets at 31.92 (Economy rate 4.64).

Shivnarine Chanderpaul: The left-hander has evolved into a very effective batsman in the ODIs (the fact that the Caribbeans have three top-notch southpaws in the top six does not make bowling easier for the attacks of the world). His opening partner Gayle is left-handed too, but due to the different methods employed, the two make the bowlers operate at different lengths. This is an opening pair that is buzzing. Chanderpaul can be hard to dislodge, particularly on the West Indian pitches. He provides solidity to a line-up of stroke-makers. In 208 ODIs, Chanderpaul has 6459 runs at 37.99 (SR 70.76) with five hundreds.

Dwayne Bravo: He is an exciting shot-maker in the middle order, and a handy medium pacer who can get the ball to reverse in the end overs. He lends balance to the side and saves a place. Just 23, he has made commendable progress since his days as a junior cricketer. In 59 ODIs, Bravo has 791 runs (Ave. 23.96, SR 76.20) with a hundred. And he has scalped 62 batsmen at 31.77 (ER 5.30).

Jerome Taylor: A paceman with promise, Taylor has made rapid strides in a short span. He can surprise the batsmen with his speed, and operate with both the new and the old ball. Like Bravo, he bends it the other way. He is also bowling with better control these days. Taylor has 43 victims in 28 ODIs at 26.72 (ER 4.88).