Perplexingly, anotherWest Indies Test series will pass without an appearance by the bowler who has been, year after year, the region’s most prolific wicket-taker in first-class cricket. What more does Nikita Miller have to do to get the selectors to take a look in his direction? How many more wickets should the Jamaican have gathered? How many more games ought he to have won almost on his own to add another maroon cap to the one he collected all those years ago?
Miller and Sulieman Benn from Barbados are both left-arm spinners. Both have had success at the first-class level for a long time. In 99 first-class games, Benn has gathered 379 wickets at a reasonably good average of 26.73. Miller’s figures are better: 90 games have yielded him 461 wickets at an astounding 16.54.
Benn has been one of the more reliable wicket-takers during the West Indies’ regional four-day competition. Miller, almost every year, has been unstoppable. When the statistics are computed at the end of each season, the Jamaican is likely to be at, or very near the top of the list in every category: most wickets, lowest average, lowest economy rate, lowest strike rate.
And yet, for some unexplainable reason, Benn has played 26 Tests and Miller, as mentioned, has only one to his name. His lone Test cap came during Bangladesh’s 2009 tour of the Caribbean when most of the first-choice players took strike action against the board over a pay dispute. He never managed to get anything in the wickets column, conceding 67 runs in 22 overs. But surely, not much can be gleaned from a solitary appearance.
A number of spinners have managed to jump ahead of Miller and gain selection to the Test team, although he must have been in the selectors’ thoughts from his very first season when he collected 39 wickets at 19.56. Shane Shillingford, DavendraBishoo, Sunil Narine, Versammy Permaul and JomelWarrican all made Test debuts after Miller. Few boast anything like his fine record.
So why was he not worth more than one test match, though he has been, over the years, the foremost wicket-taker in the regional first-class game? Why was a player who maintained an extremely high level of potency and consistency in the competition that is West Indies cricket’s main proving ground, not given a reasonable run of matches to establish himself? Why was it always the case that the selectors went for the new shiny object every time one emerged, at the expense of a player who has been a long-time high achiever?
One of the arguments proffered is that he doesn’t turn the ball much. The feeling in some quarters is that he will have a difficult time extracting international wickets because he does not spin it long distances. But that same charge was levelled against Indian leg-spinning great and current coach Anil Kumble, who nonetheless managed to capture 619 wickets in 132 Tests. One report the Indian legend gave to that accusation was that a delivery only has to turn a couple or so inches to evade the bat or to graze its edge.
Sometimes we rely too much on what we think we see. A spinner turning a ball a mile is not necessarily more effective than one who turns it less but relies on other attributes that make him as, or even more effective than the big spinner.
For years, even as he racked up impressive numbers in first-class cricket, South African pacer Vernon Philander was underestimated because of what many saw as a lack of pace. Given the opportunity at test level in 2011, he raced to 51 wickets in just seven games, becoming the second-fastest to 50 wickets in the game’s history.
Overwhelmingly, the best predictor of success at a higher level is the performance at the lower level. Billy Beane, of Moneyball fame, was listening to his scouts singing the praises of a potential recruit for the Oakland Athletics. It was a college baseball player who looked to have all the attributes of a good hitter. “But can he hit?” Billy inquired. Assured by a scout that the player can indeed hit, Billy then asks for his stats, which turned out to be not all that impressive. “My only question is,” Billy then asked, “if he’s that good a hitter why doesn’t he hit better?”
Players who do better than their peers, year after year, in the in the competition that is supposed to groom them for elevation to the next level ought to be offered the opportunity. There is no guarantee that they’ll be successful — players such as England’s Graeme Hick and Mark Ramprakash did not quite manage to transfer their county cricket form to the Test level – but there is just no way to know until they are tried.
To be fair, Miller has had some international action in limited overs cricket. But it is in the first-class game that he thrives best of all and it’s in cricket’s longest format that he ought to be offered a reasonable run.
The West Indies Cricket Board’s Professional Cricket League regional four-day tournament recently ended. Predictably, Miller leads the wickets table and is at, or near the top in averages, strike rate, and economy rate.In nine games, he has captured 65 wickets at an average of 16.87. In one match at his Sabina Park home ground he gutted Trinidad and Tobago snaring nine second-innings wickets for 41 runs, and match figures of 12/94.
Another argument against Miller’s selection is his age. The claim is that aged almost 35 his time has passed; that the selectors would do better to fix their gaze on younger players. Firstly, he was not always 35. What happened over all the many years that he has been the chief gatherer of wickets in the Caribbean? Secondly, the off-spinner is still at the top of his game and there should be a few good years left in him yet. As long as he continues to perform at the regional level, he should be eligible to be selected to the higher level.
His non-selection has been a protracted error on the part of the selectors. It is time, they set things right.