Why the West Indies selectors were compelled to pick Devon Smith

With the first Test of the West Indies-Sri Lanka series approaching, one major topic of discussion is that of 36-year-old Devon Smith making yet another return to the side. Making his Test debut in April 2003, the left-hander has played 38 Tests, averaging a meager 24.5 with one century and six fifties. Patchy Test-match form has permitted him a spot in the side only sporadically and he last donned the maroon cap three years ago in St. George’s when the English came.

He made his lone century against England at Sabina Park in Kingston during their 2004 visit. And if you were seated in the stands, or in your living room watching on television, you’d have felt certain you were witnessing the first of many hundreds by the diminutive left-hander. You’d have felt this way because it was an innings of high quality that seemed to herald the coming of a player of high quality. It appeared to be a hint of things to come.

Brian Lara, his captain, thought so as well, and said as much during the press conference afterward. But Smith never ascended to that level again, at least not for any lengthy period of time. He never scored another Test hundred. A pattern emerged: he was picked, then lost form, was dropped, scored runs at the regional level, and then was picked again. That cycle repeated itself a number of times over the years and is the reason he has only played 38 Tests in 15 years.

And so now we have arrived at yet another comeback for the Grenadian. This time he knocked on the door more forcefully than ever, scoring 1095 runs in 18 innings at an average of 84.23 with six centuries and one half-century in the 2017-18 first-class season. It was the kind of knocking the selectors found they could not ignore and so invited him, once again, to return to the West Indies Test ranks.

Unsurprisingly, not everyone welcomed Smith back with open arms. There are quite a number of Caribbean fans who argue against his selection, and their arguments are not totally without merit either. They cite the many opportunities he had and failed to make use of over the years. If he were Test-match quality, they argue, surely he’d have shown it by now.

The Peter principle states that everybody, more or less, “tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” Smith has been a very competent first-class batsman over the years. But Test-match batting, his detractors reason, is the level of incompetence to which he has risen. So, as good he is as a first-class player, he will always be a failure when promoted to Test level.

“If I may be so bold,” remarked captain Spock to the newly minted Admiral James T. Kirk in Star Trek II, “It was a mistake for you to accept promotion. Commanding a star ship is your first, best destiny. Anything else is a waste of material.” A number of West Indies fans are convinced that Devon Smith as a Test batsman is a waste of material, a waste of a spot that should rightfully have gone to a younger player without the affliction of repeated failures at that level. For why should you hire a man to do a job he has botched time and time again?

Yet there is much to admire about Smith. The way he has managed to stay motivated all these years is impressive. This last season he collected almost 300 runs more than the player that came second on the list, vastly outperforming much younger players who the fans were expecting to challenge for a batting spot in the Test team.

Those who castigate the selectors for picking him have to acknowledge that Smith outperformed his competitors. They were all placed on a level playing field and asked to compete for the same prize. He did considerably better than they did. So what were the selectors to do then?

Smith’s selection, remember, takes place in the context of the selectors having limited high-quality players from which to choose. Who can blame them for choosing the player, who despite a number of drawbacks — age and previous blown opportunities among them — outstripped his rivals by some distance. The weight of Smith’s runs could not have been ignored. He exceeded expectations and was rewarded.

By his steady, sometimes brilliant performances over the years, Kraigg Brathwaite has made one of the opening spots his own. The other incumbent, Kieran Powell, has not. As elegant a player he is and as talented he appears to be, he simply has not been as productive as the team needed him to be. He has been retained in the squad for the Sri Lanka series but his place could well be in jeopardy. The selectors, understandably, must be looking to Smith as a replacement.

Still, he could only be a fairly short-term solution. At his age, most batsmen are already in decline. Smith is probably in the form of his life, but, realistically, he will only have a few years left. If he comes in and does well, he could give the Caribbean side some reliability at the top, something they badly need. But even if he comes in and fails again, nobody should blame the selectors for handing him this one last chance. He has earned it.

Chris Rogers was a prolific maker of first-class runs for about 15 years when Australia decided to give him the opportunity to add to the one Test he had played years earlier and picked him, aged almost 36, for the 2013 Ashes series in England. The result was five centuries and 14 half centuries in 24 additional matches. The left-hander ended his Test career after the 2015 Ashes series in England with a satisfying 42.87 average. Devon Smith should endeavor to do something along those lines.

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