Jason Holder's trial by fire
The concern was genuine, widespread and well-founded. Clive Lloyd's appointment of Jason Holder as the new West Indies captain for an initiation in South Africa against South Africa, one of the game's current powerhouses, followed by the pressure of the World Cup, seemed too great a burden to place on the youngest of all West Indies captains.
Holder was 23, had played just 21 ODIs, and had never led even his native Barbados. His task coincided with an especially turbulent time, as Chris Gayle, the most experienced and prominent member of the team, openly seethed over the omissions of Dwayne Bravo and Kieron Pollard from the squad for the World Cup.
Bravo had been captain and spokesman for the players on the previous, ill-fated tour of India that prematurely ended with the withdrawal of the team. Had he been retained there is no certainty Holder would have so much as made the squad.
Lloyd saw Holder as one of "the good young players who we believe will form part of the long-term future of West Indies cricket"; he and his panel expected Holder would "be around for a very long time".
Lloyd detected "a very good cricketing brain" and "the makings of a very good leader". As a fellow member of Barbados' oldest cricket club, Wanderers, where Holder developed through the youth system, I appreciated he had all the traits Lloyd mentioned. Along with a host of doubting Thomases, my concern was over the timing of his elevation.
From the start, Ezra Moseley, the former Barbados and West Indies fast bowler, who was coach when Holder led the St Michael School team as a early teen, had no such qualms. "From what I know of Jason Holder, I think he'll handle the challenge pretty well," he said.
Holder himself rebuffed any pessimism at his first media conference. "It's something I'm up for," he stated amidst all the reservations that he wouldn't be.
As predictably difficult as the campaign has been, Holder has shown in his ten ODIs the strength of character essential for successful leadership in any endeavour. He has overseen a 4-1 thrashing in the five ODIs in South Africa, and now awaits results of the team's final pool match against United Arab Emirates in Napier on Sunday and the clash between Pakistan and Ireland across the Tasman Sea in Adelaide to determine whether they advance to the World Cup quarter-finals.
In spite of such a record, respect and admiration has come from prominent quarters. The most pleasing was from Brian Lara, as much a legend of West Indies cricket as Lloyd, whose assessment he echoed. Following the World Cup for the press from Australia, Lara saw Holder "developing into the kind of leader who will give years of service to West Indies cricket, given the right kind of support". He went as far as to expect him to eventually be captain in all three formats.
West Indies' precarious World Cup position was triggered by a complacent attitude that led to defeat by Ireland in their first match. Their batting has been marked by reckless top-order hitting, the bowling has lacked discipline, and too many of their players are not physically ready for the demands of professional sport.
They floundered at 87 for 5 against Ireland, 63 for 7 against South Africa and 85 for 7 against India. Their difficulties have been compounded by 58 wides and seven no-balls (followed by the resulting free hits), all presenting unearned runs to the opposition.
Holder's bowling has not escaped heavy punishment in South Africa and the World Cup, nor some of his tactical decisions the criticism of knowledgeable observers, but he hasn't allowed this to undermine his belief that he is "up for it".
In his second match at the helm, against South Africa in Johannesburg, he was pummelled for seven sixes in conceding 91 from nine overs, as the marauding AB de Villiers' 149 off 44 balls followed hundreds by Hashim Amla and Rilee Rossouw that built the second highest total in ODIs.
When West Indies were skittled for 122 in the next match, Holder could well have headed back to his hotel room, locked the door, plonked his 6 feet 7 inch frame on the bed and covered his head with the blanket in self-pity. Instead, he summoned his players, all his seniors and among them three captains before him, and basically gave them a stern talking-to. Their only victory in the series followed in the next match.
When de Villiers' unbeaten 162 off 66 balls mugged them again in the World Cup pool match in Sydney, Holder chose to bowl the closing overs himself. It exposed him to one of one-day cricket's most spectacular canings. He was taken for 34 and 30 from his final two overs as his pitch map on the TV screen became as mottled as a spilt box of M&Ms.
He said afterwards that all he could think of was how to get de Villiers off strike. It was an unpretentious admission.
"It's cricket. You have good days, you have bad days," he said. For the moment, he had another tough match, against India in Perth, to concentrate on. "I'm not too disheartened from it. I'm just looking forward to coming back stronger."
De Villiers remained only briefly in Holder's thoughts in Sydney. With a target of 409 clearly out of reach, the need to at least limit damage to the net run rate apparently didn't dawn on his top-order batsmen. From 63 for 7, Holder showed them the way with a composed 56, Denesh Ramdin and Jerome Taylor followed and the last three wickets yielded 88.
The pattern was followed against India a week later. Lara and an equally celebrated former West Indies captain, Sir Viv Richards, condemned the decision to bat on winning the toss.
Holder maintained that there was nothing wrong with the pitch, just the top-order batting again. It was a point he proved with more level-headed application; his 57 carried the total from an abject 85 for 7 to 182 all out, which at least presented his fast bowlers with a flicker of hope; it was eventually extinguished and India scraped to victory by four wickets.
Lara's main censure was aimed at "several of the so-called senior men on the team [who] should hold their heads in shame after watching how sensibly he [Holder] batted".
Jarrod Kimber, reporting on the match for ESPNcricinfo, put it succinctly: "Holder made mistakes, but without him, there would have been no mistakes to make. Holder opened up the match. Holder held the match up. Holder made the match a match."