Looking for the elusive fifth gear

K. C. VIJAYA KUMAR

BATSMEN are known by their repertoire as well as their reign at the crease. And Ramnaresh Sarwan, all curly hair and caressing shots, knows that he still has not played a really big innings in Test cricket.

But that has not stopped expectations in the Caribbean. It started the day when he topped his debut at Bridgetown, Barbados in May 2000 with an unbeaten 84 against a Pakistan attack that featured Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Saqlain Mushtaq and Mushtaq Ahmed. "Expectations do not put pressure on me," Sarwan says.

A batting pedestal is being built for him and his 140 against the Board President's XI at Bangalore has shown the early signs of a player willing to temper his talent with the need to score a large amount of runs.

Sarwan is aware of the need of the hour. And he knows his strength too - "I have a good technique and I keep watching the ball till the very last," he says.

"A few years back while doing an ad for Pepsi, I had said that I want to be among the top 10 players in the next three years. I am working towards it. If I can better myself as a player and help West Indies become a top side, that will be a satisfying experience. To know that my captain Carl Hooper, one of my heroes, expects great things from me is indeed an honour," says Sarwan.

Imploding after cruising past the 50s has been a typical Sarwan folly. But people are willing to wait for his maiden century.

"He is like a good driver who knows his way around but somehow he is unable to slip into that fifth gear. And when he does slip into that fifth gear, he will take off. He is a tremendous player and this Indian tour will be very important for him," says West Indies coach Roger Harper.

Sarwan has 13 fifties and he hopes to tilt the script towards the three-figure mark in the current series against India. "I want the West Indies to do well here in India. If I can score a century while helping my team win, that will be great," he says. As for being plagued with the just-50-only tag, he says, "it's got to do with a lack of concentration and my shot selection. I am working on it."

However, his skipper and hero - Hooper - remains unruffled and asks for patience while dealing with Sarwan. "He is very talented. Yes he has not converted his 50s but I would rather have a 50 than nothing. Besides he is very young, give him a year or two to mature. In five years I expect him to be among the greats," Hooper says.

Sarwan, in his second trip to the land of his forefathers - he was part of the West Indies 'A' team that played against India 'A' in India in 1998 - is expected to shoulder the West Indian middle order in the company of his Guyanese team-mates - skipper Hooper and the dogged Shivnarine Chanderpaul.

At Bangalore, Sarwan walked in while opener Wavell Hinds' power-packed willow scattered self-doubts amidst the Board President's XI bowlers. Sarwan soon joined the act, but Kaif and his footsoldiers were hardly aware of the wounds being inflicted. The Guyanese batsman drove Mishra for four and then tapped Balaji past the ropes for early pickings.

The cream of his talent was soon revealed as he rocked a wee bit back to cut Tinu Yohannan and when Kaif packed the off-side with cover, extra-cover and mid-off, Sarwan drove Mishra through the wall to notch his fifty. Weaving angles where none exist, is an Oriental art right from the days of Ranji. And Sarwan, whose ancestors migrated from India, does have a touch of the Eastern mystique.

Sarwan, however, is not aware of his exact Indian roots. "We have been there in Guyana since my grandparents' period and I don't know from where we migrated. I love Indian food and mom cooks some roti and dal though they are a little different from what you get here. We have a strong Indian population in Guyana and we love Indian movies. I like Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai and Rani Mukherjee," he says while giving brief snapshots of the Indian diaspora down in the Caribbean.

The Sarwan snippets found their early glow with a 91 against South Africa at Georgetown last year. A century against the Donald-Pollock duo was there for the asking when Sarwan tested Herschelle Gibbs' arm and muttered his way back to the pavilion. The road later got bumpy in Sri Lanka as Muralitharan's haul of 23 wickets helped the Emerald Islanders defeat West Indies 3-0 in a series dominated by Brian Lara's blade. Sarwan's balance sheet too had a healthy look with 318 runs, but while recalling his Lankan sojourn, he shakes his head in disbelief and says, "Murali (Muralitharan) was a problem." Understandable, since Murali scalped Sarwan in four consecutive innings.

The 21-year-old from Guyana is itching to strike big. And one day in his mental diary where he jots down his heroes' names, he might find himself worthy enough to be placed alongside his idols - Hooper, the Waugh twins and Sachin Tendulkar.

If Sarwan can maintain his progress without letting youth's confidence stray into the sidelines of complacency, he can perhaps attempt to scale the "he-will-average-60" benchmark predicted by Ted Dexter.

Right now, one step at a time. Four fifties when India toured the Caribbean earlier this year is just an appetiser. It's time now for the full course meal.