Whither Windies?

West Indies head coach Bennett King's latest OVERSEAS foray ended, as usual, in defeat and disappointment, writes TONY COZIER.

Bennett King had a familiar story to tell when he reported to the West Indies Cricket Board President Ken Gordon, convenor of selectors Joey Carew and recently appointed head of the cricket committee Clive Lloyd less than 24 hours after his return from a futile tour of New Zealand. It was the head coach's fourth series overseas, following two to Australia and one to Sri Lanka last year. Like the others, it ended in defeat and disappointment.

The main reasons would have been obvious to Gordon and his colleagues from what they saw through the television coverage and read from comments on tour by King himself, captain Shivnarine Chanderpaul and some of the other players, not least the most experienced, Brian Lara.

The failure of the middle order batting, notably the key men, Chanderpaul (average 14.8) and Lara (average 18), inappropriate shot selection and missed catches at critical moments led to the narrow defeat in the first Test and contributed to the comprehensive loss in the second. The injuries that reduced Dwayne Bravo's all-round capacity to batting and fielding alone and confined fast bowler Jerome Taylor to nine overs in his only Test were also significant setbacks.

Above all, as Lara observed at the end, the continuing lack of mental toughness undermined the effort against efficient, but hardly overwhelming, opponents in both Tests and One-Day Internationals. The outcome also ensured that the issue of leadership would be high on the agenda for the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) and the selectors in the lead-up to the international home season from April 29 to July 4 that involves seven one-day internationals against Zimbabwe followed by five one-day internationals and four Tests against India.

Decisions would have to be taken on the captaincy and, following the review by the committee headed by former Test wicket-keeper Jackie Hendriks, on the coaching. Chanderpaul is not the first captain to endure such a prolonged period of failure but none has been so unsuited to the role or so uncomfortable in it. Until thrust into the position by last year's divisive squabble between the Board and the players association over sponsorship that led to Brian Lara's withdrawal, his cricket was focussed exclusively on batting, on accumulating runs however they came, on substance rather than style. His record after 94 Tests attests to his success.

Quiet to the point of introversion, he did not have to concern himself with determining tactics or mastering the skills necessary to communicate with his players and the media.

It was too much to expect him to suddenly grasp such complexities, especially at such a turbulent time in West Indies cricket. He has tried his best, as he always does, but the demands have become such a burden they have undermined his confidence and severely affected his batting, his one, abiding passion.

Since the Sri Lanka series last July, when the leading players left him to carry novice replacement, Chanderpaul has gone 14 Test innings without a half-century. His left-handed stance has gradually rotated so that he now takes strike with both feet pointing towards the bowler, the certain sign of a troubled mind.

The recent statistics undermine whatever authority he had as captain. They are enough for him to be relieved of the weight and worry of leadership so that he can get back to doing what he does best, score runs. Ramnaresh Sarwan was vice-captain on the last two tours, to Australia last November and now in New Zealand. He was first elevated to the post under Lara in 2003, was replaced by Chanderpaul two years later and reinstated last October.

Sarwan is one of several embroiled in last year's sponsorship row and the evidence suggests that not everyone on the Board, which has to sanction the captain's appointment, is convinced he is the right man to lead. He doesn't turn 26 until June but has already clocked 59 Tests and 91 ODIs in his seven years of international cricket. The quicker he is named captain, the better to end the negative speculation that is a constant companion of West Indies cricket. The seven ODIs against a weakened Zimbabwe that are next on the West Indies' schedule are an ideal introduction for a new, younger skipper. Throughout New Zealand, King and his all-Australian staff remained under the cloud of the Hendriks committee's report and the inevitable rumours that followed the release of its findings.

The head coach's summary of the tour was inevitably made against this background of uncertainty, even given the committee's conclusion that "there was not sufficient evidence to work with in determining whether the investment in the coaching staff had paid dividends" and its subsequent recommendation that they be given "more opportunity before a further evaluation is made". In his debriefing, King might have found it difficult explaining the mental meltdown that turned strong positions in two of the ODIs and, more frustratingly, in the first Test, into morale-sapping losses. Yet what King had to report was not all gloom and doom. There was the continuing development and strengthening of Fidel Edwards as a genuine strike bowler capable of unsettling the best batsmen with the pace and swing generated from his slinging, round-arm delivery.

Against widespread scepticism that the task of taking 20 wickets in a match would be beyond a bowling attack limited by the absence of Corey Collymore, Pedro Collins and Bravo through injury, it did so in the first Test and would have been more effective with better support in the field. At last, Chris Gayle and his reinstated partner, Daren Ganga, provided more solid starts than other opening pairs had managed for some time (47, 148, 43, 54 and 37 against 20, 11, 12, 4, 16 and 2 in the previous series in Australia).

But the real revelation was Runako Morton, the last of the 15 players chosen for the trip. The powerfully built 27-year-old from the tiny island of Nevis (population 15,000) has a turbulent history that includes his expulsion from the Board's Academy, the infamous yarn about his grandmother's fictitious death so he could return home early from the Champions Trophy in Sri Lanka in 2002 and several run-ins with the authorities, both cricket and civil.

Now settled by marriage and his religion, he put such a background behind him and concentrated on what he does best. He observed the simple dictum of batting within his limitations, defending stoutly with a straight bat against worthy deliveries, driving strongly when the length was right.

His performances in the ODIs, where he disregarded the trauma of a first ball dismissal in the opening match to be West Indies' high scorer, and his solid 63 in the first innings of the second Test and unbeaten 70 in the rain-ruined third established a strength of character so glaringly missing in recent West Indies' teams.

His omission from the first Test XI, in spite of his ODI returns, was proof that not everyone was convinced of his credentials and that the retention of his place depended solely on the weight of runs. The injury that eliminated Sarwan from the equation was an unexpected opportunity and, filling the pivotal No. 3 position, he seized it.

There was another positive for King to report and, in the given entrenched environment of defeatism, it could not be underestimated.

The coach could rightly point out that there was an unmistakeable and refreshing camaraderie on and off the field, especially among the many youngsters.

It is a critical factor in moulding unity and spirit in a team that had been split by the bitter standoff between the Board and the players association only a few months earlier.

It was an encouraging sign for the future. The problem, yet again, was that it wasn't reflected in the results.