The missing ‘Marlon role’ in West Indies’ T20 jigsaw

It’s the final first round match of the 2012 World T20 for the West Indies. And the must-win game for the eventual world champions against New Zealand has entered a Super Over. The expectation is for Sunil Narine, whose figures of 3 for 20 were mainly responsible for denying the Kiwis an outright win in the low-scoring contest, to be handed the ball. But instead, it’s Marlon Samuels who steps up for the challenge.

As one team official recalls now, it didn’t come down to the coach’s call. It was more Samuels volunteering to take on the responsibility. He had done so already that night in Pallekele, bowling the 20th over with the Black Caps needing 14 runs to win. He did so once more, this time with bat in hand, smashing Tim Southee for a six to win the Super Over and seal his team’s progress in the tournament.

Toby Radford remembers the moment and the “fantastic” match rather fondly. The former Middlesex and Sussex cricketer was then the assistant coach of the West Indies. He also can’t understandably stop gushing over Samuels’ contribution not just in that match but in both of West Indies’ World T20 triumphs. And Radford isn’t the least surprised that the enigmatic Jamaican had wanted to take centre-stage with ball and bat against Brendon McCullum’s team.

“I can see him having had that chat with Ottis (Gibson). Marlon’s a warrior and in his mind, he was going into battle. The bigger the moment, the better he got, and he wanted the whole world watching him,” Radford tells Cricbuzz.

With their convincing 4-1 series win over Australia, the two-time world champions might look to be shaping up quite strongly for their title defence in a few months’ time. Radford though isn’t the only expert who feels that they won’t be at their strongest till they find an able replacement for Samuels. Both Ian Bishop and Curtly Ambrose have spoken over the last 10 days about the need for an anchor batsman like the talented right-hander to hold the innings together. Not surprisingly so, considering they are after all talking about the only man in cricket history to have won the player of the match award in two World Cup finals. Radford points to his 56-ball 78 in the 2012 edition in Colombo to sum up Samuels’ significance to those victories.

“We were 14 for 2 and struggling but the beauty of Marlon was he could always bring you back into the game. He used his feet against the spinners to rebuild the innings. And then when he felt like it was relatively safe, he began to expand and launched into (Lasith) Malinga, hitting him for 17 runs in an over. That ability to go through the gears, to work in first and second gear to get the team into the match and then the ability to accelerate in the end is what made him invaluable,” he adds.

The need for a player like Samuels in the midst of all their impact players and powerhouses isn’t lost on the current team management either. For, there have been attempts made during the last few weeks to find the right candidate. With Chris Gayle having now occupied the No 3 spot left vacant by his compatriot, the home team have tried Shimron Hetmyer, Andre Fletcher, Nicholas Pooran, Lendl Simmons and even Dwayne Bravo at No 4 or 5 as someone who can hold the innings together. The inclusion of Darren Bravo for the final match of the series in St Lucia, even if he came out to bat in the death overs, tells you that the search is still on. And Radford cites the loss to South Africa a couple of weeks ago as having further exemplified the necessity for a batsman who can “play the situation”.

“I think you always need someone like Marlon. You can’t hit your way through a game always. You’ve got a lot of power players in this side too with Hettie and Pooran in there now alongside those other superstars. But who’s going to bail you out when you are 20 for 3? Where they lost against South Africa was the number of dot balls and that resulting in them trying to hit their way out of danger. The mystery spinner Tabraiz Shamsi caused problems. And they weren’t rotating the strike,” he says.

And though Samuels may have had the tendency to bide his time at the start of his innings, he had the great ability to making up for it in the late overs, like he did at the Premadasa Stadium in 2012 and famously at the Eden Gardens in 2016. Having the technique and skills to tackle both the new-ball and handle high-quality spin in the middle overs, meant he rarely got stuck once he got his eye in. And the immense self-belief in the man who goes by the moniker of Icon these days, meant that neither he nor the dressing-room ever panicked over a couple of quiet overs.

“If he did chew up three dot balls in an over, with Marlon, the way he approached his game and the belief he had in it, he was never going to panic. And the best part also was he wasn’t going to care about what the dressing-room was thinking after three dot balls. He always believed while he was out there that ‘I’m Marlon Samuels, I am going to win this game’. He had the perfect blend of that ego and game awareness,” the current Bangladesh high performance team coach says.

“That strength of mind and his cricket smarts meant that he reads the game well. He could work us back in like he did in Kolkata (when they were 11 for 3 against England). He would hit the spinner over the top early to push the field and then milk them around. And we trusted him to know the right moment to start taking risks, which with Marlon were always calculated. It made sure the powerhitters like Pollard, Russell and Sammy weren’t in earlier than they needed to.”

Despite his ability to hit some massive sixes, Samuels may not have necessarily been renowned for clearing the ropes like some of his more celebrated colleagues. But Radford reveals that the classy batsman unintentionally revolutionised one-day hitting nearly a decade ago. He believes it was Samuels who introduced the setup in the crease that a lot of batsmen utilise in the latter overs these days, where they go back into off-stump and into a very open position.

“What he did was positioning his body in such a way that if bowlers went wide, which they do a lot, he could reach it and flay it over the off-side. If they went straight, he could whack it back over their heads. And if they went a little bit towards the leg-side because he was open, he could pick it up on the on-side. It meant he could hit the ball all around the ground and off different lengths. He worked it out himself in the middle. And he just literally eliminated their margin for error. You see at least 2-3 batsmen in each team batting like that in the death these days,” explains Radford.

Andre Russell in fact spoke about how he’d worked on getting himself into that “open” stance as recently as after scoring his maiden T20I half-century against the Australians at the Darren Sammy Cricket Ground last week. What still fascinates Radford about it is the fact that he never saw Samuels work on it in the nets. Not that he’s taken aback by it. Samuels, as his former coach puts it anyway, never quite “thrived on practice days or could get himself up for it”.

“We had a camp in Barbados before that 2012 World T20 and I suggested to Ottis that we simulate realistic scenarios, especially for scenarios where we lost early wickets quickly. Marlon went out at No 3 and lasted two balls each in the first two of those intra-squad matches. And I remember him walking off moaning, ‘what kind of practice is this where I’m only getting to face two balls’. Ironically, we ended up facing the exact scenario we had planned for the most in the World T20 final and on the big stage, he knew exactly how to cope with it,” Radford recalls.

Unlike nine years ago, however, the current West Indies team have already had a lot of T20Is to try out different line-ups and approaches, with five still to come against Pakistan later this month. What Radford feels will be the star-studded outfit’s big challenge in the UAE is getting used to the bigger boundaries, especially in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. He recalls the time they struggled against Pakistan in 2016 when the hosts with Mickey Arthur at the helm made sure that the boundary ropes were pushed back as far as they could be.

“The power of the WI in T20 cricket at times means that they win games at times even with a few mishits in the IPL-sized Indian boundaries. I remember that UAE tour where the boundaries were nearly 80-85 meters long at times and I asked them to focus on knocking the ball around for ones and twos rather than only backing their power to clear those boundaries. Marlon was one of the few who was prepared to temper his ego and do that. That ability to change their game based on the size of ground is a big part of how they could succeed in the next two T20 World Cups (the 2022 edition will be held in Australia),” he says.

“In home series, you can decide the length of the grounds. In the UAE, teams will start going very short at Pollard and Russell and say, right, try and hook this and we’ll have two men back to catch you out. You have to beat two of my men at 75 yards off Starc. Then you’re making the batsmen make decisions, do I roll my wrists over and get a single or do I chance my arm and risk a top-edge. You can take that on in Grenada, top-edge it for six but you can’t in the UAE and Australia.”

So, what the West Indies need then is someone at No 4 who can deal with the pace of a Mitchell Starc with the new-ball but then also be adept at contending with a Shamsi in the middle overs on those big grounds. What we’ve seen with them in recent times is the keenness to have a left-right combination at most times in the middle, but Radford believes that that stability is as important as flexibility.

“There are a few who can do it. Dwayne Bravo is technically capable of doing it. Lendl is too but he seems to have gone back to opening. Hetmyer is aggressive and can be brilliant but can frustrate at times with too many shots. Pooran is a genuine talent and even Pollard could adopt that role,” he says.

And he admits that finding someone to play “that role” will not be a straightforward process but is confident that the world champions will find the talisman to put his hand up just like Samuels did in the big moments with the whole world watching.

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