2016 has been a year of unexpected, long overdue, but very welcome, cricketing success in the Caribbean. Six months ago it was beyond the wildest dreams of even the most optimistic of West Indian cricket fans to have achieved so much.The U19 World Cup win; the women’s T20 triumph, followed by the men’s — these were wonderful returns to the days of glory for the once mighty West Indies — and fans are still, understandably, basking in the warm glow of the flames of victory.Nor has the fire yet gone out. Rekindling interest in the exploits in the region’s team, expectations — realistic ones — have been raised. Those were met with the relative success in the recent tri-series ODI competition in the Caribbean. The Windies performed creditably — inflicting defeats upon both Australia and South Africa during the tournament — and out-performing the Proteas sufficiently to reach the final. They put-up-a-fight, but ultimately went down to the Aussies — the World Champions and number one ranked team. If not an outright success, this was a qualified one. Progress had been made.West Indies have been near rock-bottom for too long. In Test and ODI cricket they’ve descended so far down the ladder that they failed to qualify for next year’s eight-team Champions Trophy ODI tournament in England; and if a two-division Test Championship were inaugurated anytime soon — as has been recently discussed by the ICC — then they would certainly be in the lower league.Twenty20 cricket has been their strength — it’s also where they’ve enjoyed their highest profile. The Caribbean’s best players in the format have thrilled crowds from Mumbai to Melbourne to Manchester as they’ve jet-setted from tournament to tournament, packing stadiums and boosting TV ratings — and enjoying a well-earned living for their exploits and travels. In between featuring in those domestic competitions, they’ve brought a World Cup back to the island region that proved they were the best. The narrative in ODI and Test cricket has been very different; but belief is high that 2016 can be the year of change.The triple World Cup success has had a galvanising effect, and the desire is strong to pull the Windies back up the ladder. The relative success of the tri-series was encouraging and a move in the right direction. They need more of the kind.The challenge now for the players representing WI in the longest format is to match those efforts. They know emulating the T20 team is unrealistic; but a tangible improvement of the sort the ODI side made is a reasonable target. The question is though, what would constitute ‘relative’ success for the West Indies as they face India, the world’s second-best Test team?A decent place to start is to be better than they’ve been in recent Test Matches — that is a must. The Windies were abysmal in Australia over Christmas and the New Year, under-performing shockingly. They were also poor in Sri Lanka. As visitors to a mid-table, transitional side they should have competed better, and at least drawn the series if they were going to show progress — but WI were beaten easily.Now WI have home advantage, but a far bigger challenge: India has a squad full of very good cricketers; a handful are world-class. One or two may, if not quite yet, be ranked as all-time greats. They will ‘take some beating’. They will ‘take some drawing’ too.A win for the West Indies in the four-match series cannot be ruled out — but it would be a huge upset. Aiming high is not a bad thing, but looking skywards and reaching for the stars is not the most practical way of climbing the ladder. Focusing on the next rung and taking a step at a time is a more pragmatic approach.To begin with, they must compete. The ease and speed with which WI regularly succumbed in recent times has been little short of shameful. The batsmen must ‘dig in’, stay in the game, and not give throw their wicket away on a whim. The bowlers too need to show determination and heart — the Indian batsmen will take a great deal of removing.If the West Indies can demonstrate these competitive qualities, and provide a genuine contest in each match, then a four-nil defeat would be palatable. If improvement has been seen, even if there is no tangible reward in the score-line, then Caribbean fans will be heartened. But with a high-level of commitment and enterprise this team has the ability to do far better that 0-4.Yet to achieve longer-term progress, the West Indies squad and coach Phil Simmons must be patient, and aim for gradual improvement. The team needs to target collective development, and the players need to set themselves individual goals. For too long, several talented Caribbean cricketers have failed to apply themselves, or achieve anything near their potential in the Test arena. Players like Marlon Samuels, Darren Bravo and Denesh Ramdin have shown in flashes that they are top-class cricketers – but too rarely have they provided a top-class performance. We’ve seen short bursts and glimpses of their excellence, but little evidence of an ability, or appetite, to perform consistently at the highest level.That under-achievement has exasperated supporters and selectors alike — and recently the patience with Ramdin’s serial under-achievement with the bat ran-out. I hope it galvanizes him into making a bigger effort, and to come-back and prove a point.Time was very nearly called too on Samuels. His apparent dis-interest and lack of engagement had taken him to the brink of exclusion from the side – probably never to return. He was allowed one-last throw of the dice in this year’s World T20 tournament – and he repaid the faith shown in him with a Man of the Match performance in the final. Now he needs to maintain his undoubted world-class form, or something approaching it, if he’s to help his young team-mates begin the climb back, beginning with the Indian challenge.This West Indies team is full of unfamiliar faces to a non-Caribbean audience. It is also full of talent and potential. On paper many teams can look weak at the time, and then appear much stronger with hindsight. I recall going to Lord’s in 1996 to watch India take on England: I looked at the team-sheet and thought that the batting line-up looked thin beyond skipper Mohammad Azharuddin and Sachin Tendulkar. The names of the two Test debutants, Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid, meant nothing to me then. With the benefit of hindsight, I now peruse that scorecard and see how strong India were – and those two all-time greats made 131 and 95 in their first Test innings.In a team full of names new to many, the West Indies need to identify those men who are going to make the breakthrough — and make their mark indelibly on cricket history. Achievements in this series could cause us to look back years from now upon this team of relative unknowns and see, not a list that constitutes the eighth-best team in the world, but a group of players who were really, really good.
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