Three steps forward, three steps back
The brilliant and the mediocre made for another unpredictable and challenging year in West Indies cricket.
The unprecedented and unexpected capture of three global limited-overs titles in the first half of the year was tempered by more off-field controversy that affected performances in the latter half. What the West Indies' men's and women's sides and their Under-19 side achieved between February and April is a collective feat that might never be repeated. It was a reminder of what the Caribbean region can still offer to world cricket.
First, the Under-19s impressed with their intelligent play, culminating in Keemo Paul and Keacy Carty steering them to a five-wicket victory over India in the 50-over World Cup final in Bangladesh, after pace find Alzarri Joseph had helped to limit India to 145. It was West Indies' first triumph at this level.
That was on February 14. Then came April 3, in India, when the senior men and women completed the hat-trick. Through 18-year-old opener Hayley Matthews and skipper Stafanie Taylor, the women's side coolly chased 149 to beat Australia and capture their first World T20 title.
Mere hours later, under the lights in Kolkata, the icing was put on a very sweet cake when Darren Sammy's seasoned side snatched a dramatic victory over England in the men's T20 final through the last-over heroics of one Carlos Brathwaite.
When Brathwaite sent his final six into the stands to end the match with two balls to spare, there didn't seem to be anything that could sour the moment for West Indies cricket as a whole. But when Sammy took the microphone for his post-match comments, the mood changed as he took issue with the WICB's handling of the team uniforms for the tournament and the lack of any words of support from president Dave Cameron prior to the final. The WICB felt compelled to issue a press release in which Cameron apologised to the fans for what he termed "inappropriate" comments to a global audience.
Those statements by Sammy proved to be among his last public utterances in his capacity as West Indies captain. By August, Sammy, who had also been the team spokesman when the players questioned their remuneration for the World T20 prior to the tournament, was sacked.
"I got a call yesterday morning - it was probably 30 seconds - from the chairman of selectors telling me that they've reviewed the captaincy of T20 and I won't be captain any more of the T20 team, [and] my performances have not merited selection in the squad," he said via video on Facebook.
And, by the time the new world champions got to the UAE for the T20I, ODI and Test series against Pakistan in September, they had also lost coach Phil Simmons after 18 months in the job. That brought to an end a tenure that had been marked by a fractious relationship between the coach, Cameron, and director of cricket Richard Pybus, stemming from public complaints Simmons had made in 2015 about "outside interference" in team selection.
"In recent times, based on the public pronouncements of the coach and the approach internally, we have identified differences in culture and strategic approach," the WICB said via press release, announcing Simmons' departure.
The effect of the coach's firing on the eve of the tour was immediate and negative. Sammy's replacement, Carlos Brathwaite presided over a 3-0 whitewash in the UAE T20Is, with senior players Dwayne Bravo and Kieron Pollard claiming that the team had been affected by Simmons' removal and its timing.
In all formats, West Indies won 11 out of 33 games in 2016. Predictably, they did best in T20Is, winning six out of 11. But the lack of sufficient players of experience in the Tests and absence of the very best men in ODIs, meant that those teams, led by Jason Holder, continued to struggle. The ODI team's chances of automatic qualification for the next World Cup were hurt as they won just one match in the tri-series with Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka.
Nevertheless, the year did not end in total gloom. After the disastrous limited-overs leg of the UAE tour, West Indies showed improvement in the three-Test series, reflecting a certain amount of character and determination. Their five-wicket win in the third Test, in Sharjah, delivered by opener Kraigg Brathwaite, was indication that this group could improve with time.
The way 2016 started for West Indies teams, the future should be bright. That would be a logical assumption. The resumption of cricketing relations with India after the abandoned 2014 tour was also a plus; so too were the flashes of inspiration shown by players in whom West Indies cricket has invested much, men like Kraigg Brathwaite, legspinner Devendra Bishoo and fast bowler Shannon Gabriel. Batting allrounder Roston Chase and explosive opening bat Evin Lewis showed enough talent to be persisted with. And while Jason Holder is still struggling to manage his load both as captain and allrounder, there were signs towards year's end that he was at least becoming more of the wicket-taker his team requires.
The emergence of young talents like Joseph and Matthews, and the strides West Indies' Under-19 and women's cricket made in 2016 was genuinely encouraging.
However, the decisions to remove Sammy as T20 captain, Simmons as coach, and the handling of Darren Bravo, for all the justification given, did nothing to promote harmony and stability. They did not instil confidence that the region's administrators are acting in West Indies cricket's best interests. In such a climate it was little surprise that no progress was made in getting the best players to commit to representing the region in preference to plying their trade as T20 guns for hire.
One could say, therefore, it was a case of three steps forward, three steps back in 2016. That makes for sober reflection when thinking about a bright and prosperous new year.
There were three big moments for West Indies cricket in 2016, but for its sheer spectacle, the biggest was undoubtedly their victory in the men's World T20 final. The 2012 world champions would have fancied their chances, even after being set 156 to claim their second title. But having found themselves needing 19 off the final over, the odds seemed to have shifted decisively away from them. That was news to Carlos Brathwaite, who put himself into West Indies cricket folklore by bashing four sixes off four balls from Ben Stokes to seal the win with two balls to spare.
It was not just about Brathwaite, though. He was able to do his stuff because, for the second time in a T20 final, Marlon Samuels had produced the goods, this time fashioning an unbeaten 85 that kept West Indies in the game as wickets fell steadily around him.
Style, dynamism and drama were all on display on that Kolkata night. That's the way West Indies do it when they are at their best.
They were all so similarly listless that they can't be separated - the three matches West Indies lost in their T20I series against Pakistan symbolised the funk that their cricket continues to be in.
West Indies went to the UAE as world champions, having just held off India in a thrilling match in Florida, their first since winning the title. But they did so having just lost Simmons and Sammy, who had led them to victory in India. And they proceeded to play like a team without direction and spirit, a team struggling to overcome yet another setback.
New kid on the block
Call him "Mr Six". Carlos Brathwaite - tall, strapping and with a game built for the razzmatazz of T20 cricket - became a global star in 2016 because of just four balls, in which he hit 6, 6, 6 and 6 to carry West Indies to a memorable victory over England.
That stage at Eden Gardens for the World T20 final was the perfect showcase for his muscular strokeplay. Brathwaite had previously showed he could handle the bat when he debuted down under in a Test series against Australia late in 2015 and got 59 in his very first knock, in Melbourne. Medium-fast as a bowler at best, despite his great height and build, Brathwaite has the all-round potential to be a regular at limited-overs, if not Test, level. His disposition also won him favour with the West Indies selectors, who have made him Sammy's replacement as T20 captain. But Brathwaite's decision not to accept a WICB retainer contract, preferring instead to be a free agent, could test the selectors' faith in him.
At age 27, and with the talent he has already demonstrated, it seems a travesty to be speaking of Darren Bravo as one whose star is fading, but his future in West Indies cricket is anything but bright at the moment.
Bravo was sent home from the tri-series in Zimbabwe for Twitter comments made against WICB president Cameron, comments the West Indies board and director of cricket Richard Pybus considered "disparaging". Calling one's employer a "big idiot" is not likely to guarantee job security, and the words were out of character for a player who has steadfastly committed himself to West Indies Test cricket.
The Twitter rant was prompted by Cameron's defence of the C grade retainer contract offered to Bravo for the new one-year period. With an average of 40.00 in Tests overall, Bravo did not have the greatest of times in 2016 (averaging 31.78). But statistically he is still the best of the modern-day West Indian batsmen, and a potential match-winner. However, his decision to begin legal proceedings against the WICB over his dismissal from the Zimbabwe tour, in addition to his decision to reject the retainer, does not suggest he will be donning the West Indies maroon any time soon.
What 2017 holds
The way 2016 started for West Indies teams, the future should be bright. That would be a logical assumption. The resumption of cricketing relations with India after the abandoned 2014 tour was also a plus. So too were the flashes of inspiration shown by players in whom West Indies cricket has invested much, men like Kraigg Brathwaite, legspinner Devendra Bishoo, and fast bowler Shannon Gabriel.
Newcomers, Test allrounder Roston Chase and explosive one-day opening bat Evin Lewis, showed enough to be persisted with. And while Holder is still struggling to manage his load as both captain and allrounder, there were signs towards year's end that he was at least becoming more of the wicket-taker his team requires.
The emergence of young talents like Joseph, and the growing strides West Indies' Under-19 and women's cricket made in 2016, were genuinely encouraging.
Garth Wattley is a writer with the Trinidad Express