We've been starved of Test cricket for nearly four months now. Ever since Pakistan drew in Wellington, to win the series against New Zealand, there's been a glut of limited-over matches - the World Cup, Australia in Bangladesh, the IPL and Pakistan in the West Indies. Re-adjusting attention spans to the pace of five-day cricket might take a while, for both players and us. It is in Guyana, at the other end of the cricket universe from where they last played, that Pakistan resume the Test calendar, in pursuit of a success they've never achieved before.
Pakistan have never won a Test series in the West Indies. They've beaten them at home and at neutral venues (UAE in 2001-02), but in six trips to the Caribbean, Pakistan have lost four series and drawn two. The most memorable of those battles was in 1987-88, when Imran Khan's team held its own against the champion side Viv Richards inherited from Clive Lloyd in three monumental Tests. One-all it finished. The last two were thrillers. Unfortunately, Pakistan and West Indies have regressed since that watershed tour, and it would be fanciful to expect Misbah-ul-Haq and Darren Sammy's teams to produce entertainment of comparable quality.
Whether Pakistan or West Indies are in greater disorder could make for protracted debate. About ten months ago, it would have been Pakistan. Their captain (Shahid Afridi) jumped ship and retired from Tests, while his successor (Salman Butt) and their two best fast bowlers (Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Aamer) were embroiled in a spot-fixing scandal and then banned by the ICC. From the cold the selectors recalled Misbah and then made him captain. His chalice, however, hasn't been poisoned and Pakistan have been uncontroversial under his leadership. They also drew against South Africa and won in New Zealand. Pakistan, incredibly, appear well settled.
It is West Indies who appear to be in turmoil. Chris Gayle, Dwayne Bravo and Kieron Pollard turned down board contracts, preferring to remain unshackled to pursue lucrative assignments. And ever since West Indies were eliminated from the World Cup, by Pakistan, there's been a slanging match between the WICB on one side, and the WIPA and several players on the other, over how cricket is run in the region and how cricketers are treated by administrators. The upshot of the series of events is that West Indies will play the Test series against Pakistan without Gayle and Bravo, two players who would have walked into the starting XIs. Also missing is fast bowler Jerome Taylor, who's playing in the IPL.
West Indies have won only three series since Sri Lanka visited in 2003. Two of those were against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. Their only success against a top side was the 1-0 result against England in 2009, a victory that was due to a searing spell from the now-absent Taylor.
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West Indies: DDDLD
Watch out for...
Two local lads, Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Devendra Bishoo. Chanderpaul was dropped from the ODI series against Pakistan, exchanged lengthy letters with the WICB, and is now back for the Tests. He had made unflattering claims about how the team management kept telling him how to bat, even during his innings, and then subjected him to an interrogation afterwards. He's going to be playing in the same set up, so watch out for men with drinks running frequently to the middle while Chanderpaul is batting. His performances, however, will be critical in an inexperienced batting order.
While Chanderpaul has played 129 Tests, Bishoo is yet to play one, and will most certainly make his debut at Providence. He was a refreshing revelation during the World Cup and his legbreaks and googlies were the only thing that brought West Indies wickets (apart from a run-out) in the first two ODIs against Pakistan. He will be the solitary spinner in the XI, so is shouldering a large responsibility for someone so raw.
There have been questions over Darren Sammy's place in the limited-overs team - he's the third seam-bowling allrounder along with Bravo and Pollard - and whether he would win a spot by merit if he wasn't captain. Bravo is playing the IPL, so Sammy is the only allrounder in the Test squad, but he will be under pressure to show he belongs in a format that demands greater skills than the shorter versions do. At present, Sammy averages 16.72 with the bat and 31 with the ball, which isn't really good enough.
Azhar Ali is an extremely different batsman compared to Umar Akmal, who has been Pakistan's next big thing for a while now, but no less valuable in this series. While Akmal oozes aggression and indiscretion, Ali is patient. He's made six half-centuries in 19 innings and is searching for his maiden hundred. In the absence of Younis Khan, Ali's responsibility will be to provide stability in the middle order.