WIELDING A MEAN WILLOW

S. DINAKAR

MARLON SAMUELS could be the next King. Someone who could take the cricketing world by storm, galloping on his skills with the willow, winning and conquering.

Marlon Samuels' awesome ability, the sheer quality of his shot-making, and the effortlessness with which he can slice open the enemy, are not in doubt. However, it will be the consistency with which he demolishes the attacks of the world, that will determine his true stature in the cricketing hierarchy.-N. BALAJI

A storm it certainly was when the Indians were swept aside by Samuels' breathtaking hundred in the decisive ODI of the TVS Cup series in Vijayawada, the shell-shocked hosts not quite knowing what hit them. And the 'Win'dies conquered.

The Jamaican's awesome ability, the sheer quality of his shot-making, and the effortlessness with which he can slice open the enemy, are not in doubt. However, it will be the consistency with which he demolishes the attacks of the world, that will determine his true stature in the cricketing hierarchy.

But then, that's quite some way away still, and for the moment the connoisseurs will celebrate an exhilarating knock, that was as striking as the 'red rag' he pulled out after reaching his first hundred in ODIs, a talisman presented to him by Steve Waugh. Now, this formidable Aussie has an eye for talent, and, it might not have taken him long to realise that Samuels was gifted. And irrespective of the boundaries created by man, those visible and invisible lines and the divides, sports can forge unique bonds.

Chris Gayle has the gift of timing, and though he may be a touch sluggish in his footwork, his ability to pick the line in a jiffy, and hit through it, makes him a distinct threat.-V. V. KRISHNAN

Given the 'needle' that has often existed between the Australians and the West Indians, it was quite extraordinary that Samuels carried with him, a gift from one of the great battlers of the game, a cricketer who has his 'heart' in the right place.

And it will be Samuels' 'heart', that willingness to fight in adverse situations, that will enable him to surmount the barrier that separates the achievers from the merely talented.

In Waugh's 'red rag', there lies a message that Samuels may have already recognised. Or else, why would he have to display that piece of cloth to the whole world, in the finest cricketing moment yet of his blossoming career?

Despite the setbacks in the Mumbai and Chennai Tests, where the task of countering the spin duo of Harbhajan Singh and Anil Kumble on wearing pitches proved much too daunting, the West Indian youngsters have indeed displayed character.

If the dashing Wavell Hinds, strong on the cut, pull and the sweep, can shrug away a streak of carelessness that often creeps into his batting, he can serve the West Indians for quite some time to come.-N. BALAJI

If Samuels, the lithe Jamaican with that wonderful sense of 'timing' timed his century to perfection in the ODI series, the lazily elegant Chris Gayle, the Man of the Series, the flamboyant Wavell Hinds and the compact and crisp Ramnaresh Sarwan made their presence felt in a huge way.

Years from now, maybe during the days when the Windies has recaptured much of its lost glory, the four could look back at the learning experience in the tough and demanding conditions in India as the turning point, from where the Maroons turned the corner. It is not surprising that Samuels' first hundred in first class cricket surfaced in a Test, at the famous Eden Gardens, and his maiden three-figure knock in a limited overs game in the cauldron of a death or glory ODI. These 'naturals' have their own ways and methods of making a statement.

The 22-year-old Jamaican had not played in the first two Tests - he was 'feeling' his way back after a knee operation in February kept him out of cricket for six months - but, with the series already lost, the Caribbean team-management decided to give Samuels a fling, and he was ready for the occasion.

In Samuels' Eden Gardens hundred, the time he had at his disposal, enabling him to pick the gaps almost at will with those drives and the flicks, thrilled the senses in a sublime sort of way, much like a soothing gust of wind, on a hot, humid day. He does get into position so quickly, caressing the ball more than striking it. That languid 'swing' of his bat, that can so easily swing games, and that tremendous ability to hit the ball down the ground, as we witnessed in Vijayawada, where the Indians struggled to set a field for him, are a treat for sore eyes. This man indeed is rather special.

Apart from forcing the ball into the gaps, Ramnaresh Sarwan is particularly strong off his legs, he rotates the strike well, so vital in the overs-limit variety. However, it will be as a sound Test batsman that Sarwan will strive to make his mark, and the feeling is once he gets his first hundred, several more will flow from his blade.-N. BALAJI

His journey to international cricket has been an eventful one as well, his good displays with the West Indian under-15 and 19 sides hastening his entry into the Big League. It was on an SOS that Samuels travelled to Australia in 2000-2001, following a foot injury to Shivnarine Chanderpaul, which ruled the left-hander out of the side for six weeks. Soon, Samuels was making his Test debut, facing Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne, and it was as much a test of his temperament as his skill. And the Jamaican's displays in the series, that included knocks of 60 and 46 in only his second Test in Melbourne, suggested that he had a definite future in the game.

In the Carlton & United triangular ODI competition too, the ease with which Samuels could slice open an attack was striking. So were the similarities of his ways at the crease with that of Carl Hooper.

Since that tour of Australia, where the early promise in Samuels was so pronounced, his career went off the boil somewhat. His inability to build on starts, so essential in any form of cricket, and a bothersome knee slowed his progress.

On the Indian tour, he was his element, with a Test hundred in Kolkata, followed by 51 and 52 in the Jamshedpur and Nagpur ODIs, and that sizzler in Vijayawada. Not once did he go at the top of the order, which meant he never had much time to settle down. Marlon Samuels may well be on his way to a rarefied zone.

Man of the ODI series, Chris Gayle, was quite the gale force for the Windies, as an aggressive left-handed opener, and like Samuels, he's a Jamaican. He had a huge influence in the final outcome, striking the ball to the empty spaces with consummate ease, destroying the attacks.

Like Samuels, Gayle has the gift of timing, and though he may be a touch sluggish in his footwork, his ability to pick the line in a jiffy, and hit through it, makes him a distinct threat. He stands, and often delivers, his keen eye being the key. The last two seasons have witnessed the Jamaican putting his foot on the accelerator, his 175 against Zimbabwe in the Bulawayo Test, last year, and his 204 at St. George's this season, where he put the Kiwi Test attack to the sword, revealing his desire to author bigger feats; there have been occasions too when he has carelessly cast his wicket away.

On the Indian tour, Gayle had a relatively quiet Test series, his best contribution being an 88 in the final Test. That knock put him in the right frame of mind in the ODI series and in the game's abbreviated form, he exploded.

The Indians indeed were often subjected to a leather hunt, with Gayle, along with fellow-Jamaican, Wavell Hinds, going into overdrive dismissing the pacemen ruthlessly in the first 15 overs, when the field restrictions were in place.

The pitches were loaded in favour of the batsmen. Even then some of Gayle's blows were stunning with the ball either soaring over the ropes or racing to the fence.

A have-a-bat-will-hit kind of batsman, there are no half measures when Gayle is around. Knocks of 103 (Nagpur), 72 (Rajkot), 140 (Ahmedabad), and 101 (Baroda), denoted his huge contribution to the eventual outcome of the series, and if you take his handy off-spin into account, he was the Player of the Series by a distance.

Gayle realises he still has a lot of work to do. His footwork, especially while confronting the spinners, has plenty of scope for improvement. He would also do well to tighten up a certain looseness in his defence. However, his in-born ability to send the ball to the different corners of the ground, will ensure that he remains a dangerous adversary, an entertainer and a match-winner.

Hinds too can unwind to give the ball a real thump, and the 26-year-old from Kingston, has given the Indian bowlers plenty to worry about over the last few months. It was his 113 in the Test series decider against India in Jamaica during his comeback innings that set up the victory platform for the West Indians this year; his opening partnership on the first morning with Gayle was so crucial to the eventual outcome.

After throwing his wicket away to a careless heave at Harbhajan for a whirlwind 61, after having the bowling at his mercy during the second Test in Chennai, Hinds made a strokeful hundred in the Kolkata Test, seizing the initiative from the bowlers, as only an attacking opener can.

The southpaw was in blazing form as well in the ODIs, with knocks of 93 (Jamshedpur), 80 (Baroda), and 58 (Vijayawada), often taking the bowlers to the cleaners. He is a fine natural talent, but then Hinds' career has not really taken off in the manner it should have. But after a stint in the middle-order, Hinds finally appears to be settling at the top, where his rapport with Gayle augurs well for the Caribbeans' future.

He is someone who made a memorable 165 against Pakistan in the Bridgetown Test of 1999-2000, his debut series, and that innings reflected his wherewithal to take on threatening attacks such as Pakistan's varied one. If the dashing Hinds, strong on the cut, pull and the sweep, can shrug away a streak of carelessness that often creeps into his batting, he can serve the West Indians for quite some time to come. His footwork is much better than his partner Gayle's.

Not quite as good as the twinkle-toed, bright-eyed, and quick-thinking Ramnaresh Sarwan though, whose last ball boundary, under excruciating pressure at Jamshedpur, when he hammered Ajit Agarkar for the winning blow, and then spread his arms in sheer joy, will be one of the top cricketing moments of 2002.

The young Sarwan has already gone through a lot in his career, including the psychological bombardment at the hands of the Aussies in the 2000-2001 series, when he made just three runs in his first five innings, before he produced a timely second innings half-century in Sydney.

He is yet to compile a hundred in international cricket - he got quite close though, conjuring an unbeaten 99 in the Ahmedabad ODI - but there have been several gems like his 91 against South Africa at Georgetown last year, and his 88 at the cost of the Lankan attack in Galle, 2001.

With lovely use of his feet, Sarwan, along with Hooper, is the best-equipped player of spin in the West Indian ranks, though a tendency to shuffle across - this was cleverly exploited by left-armer Zaheer Khan operating over the wicket - has landed him in trouble against the pacemen. Despite this chink, he is essentially a well-organised batsman with a wide range of strokes.

On the Indian tour, while Sarwan's 78 in West Indies' second essay in Chennai was a fluent effort, he was consistency personified in the ODIs - 83 not out (Jamshedpur), 84 (Rajkot), 99 not out (Ahmedabad), and 83 (Vijayawada). Apart from forcing the ball into the gaps, Sarwan is particularly strong off his legs, he rotates the strike well, so vital in the overs-limit variety. However, it will be as a sound Test batsman that Sarwan will strive to make his mark, and the feeling is once he gets his first hundred, several more will flow from his blade. Despite the doomsday predictions, the Caribbeans can still catch the Calypso rhythm. The 'Maroons' can still waltz - do not count them out.