There was something profoundly significant about the time when West Indies eventually decided to axe Marlon Samuels (average of 22 and strike-rate of 63 since 2017) from the ODI squad post the Bangladesh tour late last year.
That the 38-year-old veteran was hooked out for an uncapped 23-year-old Nicholas Pooran for the series against England three months out from a World Cup gave an inkling of the swirl behind the scenes in West Indian cricket administration. The poles needed to shift and this little move brought a lot of it into focus.
Pooran scored a duck on ODI debut at Bridgetown in his only 50-over game before the World Cup but went on to play each of the team’s nine league games at the World Cup finishing as their highest run-getter – 367 runs at 52.42. He signed off the tournament with a match-defining 43-ball 58 against Afghanistan, laying the finishing touches to the works of Shai Hope and Shimron Hetmyer before him. In doing so, he gave a brief glimpse of the metaphorical chinks of light emerging from the depths of another failed World Cup campaign.
Between their all-consuming uncertain present and the overly romanticised past, West Indies’ recent players have generally not addressed the future. But when Chris Gayle took it upon himself to issue a warning to all future bowlers on behalf of Hope-Hetmyer-Pooran, you paid heed despite the Jamaican’s penchant for relentless hyperbole. Then when Carlos Brathwaite, addressing an open media session, put the troika at the heart of an “England post-2015-style” revival for West Indies, your attention was piqued further.
Hetmyer and Pooran – the three top-scorers for West Indies in this tournament – are at the nascent stages of their careers, yet have already tasted individual success, and collective failure at a World Cup. They bat at Numbers 3, 4 and 5, keeps them optimally placed to influence the team’s batting revolution that Brathwaite foreshadowed. That they each bring different attributes to the mix makes this trichotomy an exciting prospect.
First to Pooran, because he joined this team last and bats after the other two. His addition sets West Indies up to play reactive cricket. Ravichandran Ashwin, Pooran’s captain at Kings XI Punjab, paid the southpaw’s attributes the best of compliments earlier this year when he stated that he wanted to build the core of the KXIP team’s batting around the Trinidadian, who is equally adept against pace and spin and can temper his batting to suit any circumstance.
That Pooran made the World Cup despite a duck in his only ODI audition before the tournament was down to West Indies assistant coach Roddy Estwick having seen nearly five years ago what Ashwin observed during IPL 2019. Estwick was privy to Pooran’s 143 – in a team score of 208 – in an U-19 World Cup match against Australia – a knock Estwick remembers to date as “one of the best white-ball innings I’ve seen.” That was an early show of Pooran’s potential, where he alternated between defence and attack while stitching a 136-run stand for the ninth wicket.
“I’ve always believed in Nicholas. I’m not surprised by his talent. What’s surprised me is it’s taken as long as this for him to come through [to the big stage],” Estwick said of his long-time ward ahead of the Afghanistan game.
Then there’s Hope, unequivocally the best all-round batsman in the team already. By those standards, he may have had a lukewarm World Cup – 274 runs at 34.25. The strike-rate of 70.43, down to a couple of slow fifties, particularly stands out. But his middling returns were as much a product of pressure as they were of the team’s inability to overcome the injury-enforced Evin Lewis-void at the top and therefore shunting Hope up and down the order. Against Afghanistan, after a nervy beginning which saw him reprieved by Rashid Khan, Hope played the anchor role to perfection, allowing the hitters around him to set the pace around him while he attempted to bat through.
Hetmyer, at No.4, is the enforcer, the perfect in-betweener after Hope and before Pooran. He is also the perfect antidote to teams like India and Afghanistan that look to pin opposition down in the middle overs through spin. He endured a horrid time against Kuldeep Yadav in the Test series last year but turned the tables around dramatically during the ODIs, where his handling of the wrist spinners forced Virat Kohli to bring back Jasprit Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar Kumar from the rest they’d been given for the first half of the tournament.
“I think we complement each other pretty well,” Hope said about the emerging troika. “This is about learning, learning as quickly as possible. I’d say that we all have different types of play. But if you can mesh that all together and combine and really put those batting forms in, I’m sure we’ll be a force to reckon with in the future.”
Interim head coach Floyd Reifer was in agreement with his batting lieutenant, going as far as to define the “future” in the timeline as the final of the next World Cup in 2023, while discussing the potential of this middle-order axis when paired with finishers Jason Holder and Carlos Brathwaite.
“I mean the future is bright for us,” Reifer said looking at the bigger picture. “One of the positive things to come out of the World Cup for us is we have three guys, at 3,4,5, Hety [Hetmyer] is averaging 40 [39.86], Pooran is around 46-47 [45.87], Hope 49[48.48]. We’re building the brand of our cricket again and I’m confident these guys will show it in the future.
“The great players in the world right now, they play Test and still play T20 cricket. It’s about making the adjustments and being able to adapt to different conditions, different tournaments and different formats of the game. If we can build on it, I guarantee you that in the next four years, we’ll be there at the World Cup final.”
Only time will tell if the multiple prophecies of Reifer, Brathwaite, and Gayle will be proved right. West Indies have a long way to go, but this axis has them hoping and facing the future with optimism. (Cricbuzz)