How Andre Russell’s knees hold the key to West Indies’ World Cup hopes

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This West Indies team fell into place through availability, fitness and administration. The West Indies of a few months ago, and the one that – T20 aside – has been poor for the last two decades, already feels like a long time ago. It’s been replaced by young talents and aged warriors returning from the franchise frontiers.

For the first time in a long time, the board and the players seem to be on each other’s side, not in constant conflict. They have fast bowlers, and tall bowlers, and tall fast bowlers. In Shimron Hetmyer, Fabian Allen and Nicholas Pooran they have some of the most exciting batting talent around.

None of this means they are ready to win this World Cup, but this is a quality team and there is plenty reason to believe that, if they can make it to the semi-finals, they could do something special.

But not everyone believes this is the real deal yet. When asked if West Indies have a chance of winning the tournament, Eoin Morgan said: “They’re here. There’s a chance.”

When pressed, on how good they are he added: “I haven’t played enough cricket against them, or watched them enough to give a good account of them, so that’s probably the honest answer.”

Morgan has been playing against West Indies for years, and he just led England against them a few months ago. What he might have meant is that he hasn’t seen enough of this particular team. And no one has. So far this tournament, the West Indies players have been seen mostly in their hotel, playing dominoes and hanging out in the team room. The game against Pakistan was only a few minutes long, and their batting hardly got started.

Even when Australia played them, we saw mere glimpses of what West Indies could do, and in that time, Andre Russell had to leave the field. They are a different side with Russell bowling in the middle overs – they go from a team on the rise, to a championship contender. But Russell’s knees are a day-by-day, or almost minute-by-minute problem. Only he can know their status at any given moment.

“He’s progressed nicely over the last couple of days,” said Jason Holder, West Indies’ captain. “He is just one of those guys where we give him as much time as he possibly needs, so it all boils down to how he wakes up tomorrow morning and feels.”

Against Australia, Russell’s knees didn’t make it through his second spell. But it had been a five-over spell, mainly because Australia had regained control and Russell looked the most likely man to take the wicket that could finish them.

When asked if he’d bowled him for an over or two too long, Holder laughed and said, “Probably. With hindsight, probably, it’s probably a bit too long. Yeah, he was going well in that game. I kept asking him how he felt. He said, ‘One more, skip, one more, skip,’ so it is hard to deny him.”

Those few extra overs could end up deciding how West Indies finish in this World Cup. And perhaps they were worth the gamble; if Russell had taken one more wicket in that spell, they’d have most likely beaten Australia. Instead, he limped off, Australia limped home, and following the washout against South Africa, West Indies find themselves with a single win, a loss and a no-result.

On natural talent, they are immense, but on knowing each other’s roles within the team, they cannot hope to be as well-drilled as the other more settled teams. Even though that series against England was only a few weeks ago, Gayle’s opening partner in the Caribbean had been John Campbell, not Evin Lewis; Sheldon Cottrell was an unproven option with just six ODIs to his name in four years, and Russell spent most of the campaign in Miami instagramming.

The West Indies team that England struggled to beat in February and March tried to select Russell for the latter half of the series, but his knees let him down out there too. The challenge of taking on England on the rainy south coast, and on one of country’s largest grounds (as Morgan pointed out) will test those knees even further.

Even allowing for a day of reliable fitness, West Indies are still probably a Sunil Narine short of where they should be for this World Cup. It means that no-one knows for sure how powerful this West Indies really is, just that they’re capable.

But this is now the most crucial game that they have yet played. They are not only facing the world’s No.1 team, but they’re also playing a direct rival for a semi-final spot. It’s a four-point game, and if they win, they should be semi-finalists. No one knows how long Russell’s fitness will last, but on the eve of the game, he was going to extra efforts to get his eye in in the nets.

His power-hitting game ought to be ready, even if nothing else is. And every bit of magic that West Indies can squeeze out of those knees will be special. (ESPNCricinfo)