Young, Gifted & West Indian

Mon, Aug 23, '04


interviews MICHELLE McDONALD introduces Xavier Marshall

While the West Indies team continues to disappoint many, the region's U-19 players gave fans something to cheer about by reaching the finals of the Youth World Cup in Bangladesh earlier this year. These young men, and others yet to emerge, are the hopes on which the future of West Indies cricket lies.

Today, starting with Jamaican opener Xavier Marshall, we begin a new series called 'Young, Gifted and West Indian', showcasing many of the cricketers on that team, as well as other young cricketers with promise...

On Day 1 of the semi-final encounter between hosts Jamaica and defending TCL U-19 champions Trinidad, many a jaw dropped (including mine) when the sports update announced Jamaica's first innings score to be what sounded like 119. Maybe I had heard wrong; maybe it was 190. A repeat of the news confirmed the dismal score.

Immediately, a call was made to Fritz Harris, the Manager of the Jamaica team, to find out what the @^!%$ (no cursing allowed!) happened. He could only explain it by saying it was a poor batting performance, and then said "but the second innings will be different". Sceptical, I retorted with "you're beginning to sound like the West Indies players now. What makes you think it will be different?" Said Harris, "you can see it in their eyes".

No doubt the determination to do better at the team's second turn at bat was most evident in Xavier Marshall's eyes. He provided a quickfire century which helped propel Jamaica into the finals where they met Barbados and won.

From his days at York Castle High in the 'garden parish' of St Ann, where Marshall is from, he has been depended on to score the bulk of his team's runs. If you think that a teenager would feel pressure from that, then Xavier is not your typical young cricketer. He says "I don't call that pressure man, that's why I'm there, to do it. I love to bat".

The love started when Kaiser Bauxite Company in Discovery Bay, not far from where Xavier grew up, hosted a mini-league at their cricket ground. Xavier was nine and might not have even gone, were it not for his friends. Left to his mother, he might have ended up counting building blocks as a Quantity Surveyor, instead of counting runs. "My mother wouldn't let me out of the house because she felt a car was going to hit me down." He remembers a Mr Cover as one of the coaches.

Based on his performance at those annual cricket events, Xavier was spotted by a Mr Smith, was taken from Discovery Bay All Age where he had begun to play school cricket, and enrolled at York Castle High. He was 13 then and was immediately put on the Headley Cup team the following season. He had by then turned 14 in March. He says he scored about 350 runs that first season. He and his cousin Rachard were a batting force to be reckoned with.

His youth was evident when the result of being out was a 10-minute cry. "I didn't think that I should out no time. I always wanted to bat all through the match. Others laughed, they remember me everytime for that," said Marshall with a gleam in his eyes. In his second Headley Cup season he had to toughen up, because he said the Coach would give him a hard time for crying. His strategy was just to think about something else.

By this time, his mother had softened up a bit towards him playing cricket. "She started to feel good when she started to hear people say I could play, then she started to let me out to go and train by myself."

A solid Headley Cup season led to an invitation to trials for the U-15 Jamaica team. He did not disappoint. "I scored 150 in the first trial match and 230-odd in the next, and I got picked for the team," he remembers. Xavier was on his way to Guyana for the regional tournament with very high expectations. But things didn't go according to plan. "I didn't score any runs. No half-centuries. I cried. Three ducks, can you imagine?!" He knows why he performed so poorly. "A different kind of surface caused that. I didn't have much experience".

Marshall found out that the tournament was going to be held in Guyana the following year and told himself that he would do better next time. Note carefully that there is no mention made of "if I get selected". For him, it was a given.

He devised a plan to ensure improved performances. "I started to bat on slow turfs, I let the coach at York Castle prepare a slow turf in the evening". It paid off. He made several half centuries in his second tournament and was voted the Most Valuable Player (MVP).

His value had been recognized a few years before by current U-19 coach Junior Bennett, who is also the coach of the dominant St Elizabeth Technical High School (STETHS) team. "The first time I saw him was when York Castle was playing Holmwood Technical at STETHS. I was very impressed by the way he batted at such a tender age. Since that time, I always kept an eye on him and tried to find out how well he was doing in the cricket," said Coach Bennett.

Marshall's MVP performance earned him a spot on the West Indies U-15 team, which also included Assad Fudadin and Lionel Baker, to the Cost Cutter Challenge tournament in England. Xavier said he adjusted to the cold weather and "didn't do too badly. I didn't score much runs but I got some wickets". The West Indies were the surprise winners of that tournament, an indication of the plethora of gifted players in the team. The highlight for him was a catch off his own bowling. After the tournament, he said he started to work harder on his right arm off-spin bowling.

He had started to play for the St Ann parish team, and the manager, Ivan Anderson, began assisting him with gears. In his first match in the Senior Cup competition at age 14, he scored 95 but not with the lusty blows that are a part of his arsenal. "Jucksing" is how he described that innings. That's not in the dictionary so he had to explain. "One-one. That's how I used to bat when I was smaller, just look at the ball and put the bat on it".

Marshall got older and graduated to the U-19 team. Being a rookie in his first year he spent the first game on the bench. He came to the attention of spectators when he came on as a substitute fielder. "Someone hit a ball and I dived and slid. Some mud was on the field and I heard the spectators saying 'this guy should be playing man' and I played the next match" said Marshall. Batting at number 6, he scored some 20's and 30's.

According to him, each year he got better and better and ascertains that this year is his best year. Before his recent performance in the 2004 under-19 competition, there was the World Cup in Bangladesh. When you hear him talk about that experience, you know he sets very high goals for his performances.

"I should have scored 3 centuries, because I got two times in the 80's and get out". We then had a debate over how many runs he made in the one century he scored. The scorecard read 106. He insists it was 107. I asked him how he could be so sure. He breaks into the Jamaican dialect. "Me count me runs when mi batting man. It's a way of concentration for me. I don't look up at the scoreboard. I hit it and I count it". Another debate wages over how many 80's. The record has one but Xavier states with certainty "I scored two 80's. Papau New Guinea, mi score 80 in that match man, check it back," he instructs.

Marshall says the World Cup was a good experience for him. He finished with the 3rd highest number of runs - 335 from seven matches. However, there were eight matches to be played. What happened why he didn't play in all eight?

Many people will now begin to offer various explanations. During the World Cup, the team manager said on KLAS Radio programme 'Scoreboard', that they felt he was not 'mentally prepared' to play. Xavier tells it straight up. No frills. No diplomatic explanation.

"I got into trouble about my shades. I bought a pair of expensive designer shades and someone [he believed it to be a team mate] stole it. I was kind of angry". How did he display that anger? Now he is tight-lipped; "I'm not going to say that. Coach [Clyde Butts] rest me for the next match though". I told him that there were rumours that he took his bat to one of the players and I asked him to confirm or deny the reports. "No I didn't do that. That is not true. I walked away. Coach took me away."

He described Coach Butts as being very helpful. "He's a very good coach, one of the best I have ever been to. He helped me with batting grip, proper batting stance, how to stay still when you are batting, keep your eyes on the ball. I usually hear those things but I didn't believe it but Coach showed me the proper technique and it worked. Everything he say, I would listen to him."

What happened in the finals? "Some of the guys panicked" said Xavier, and as he is always quick to do, he gives an analysis of his innings. "I played a stupid shot. That was pressure. I felt pressure. My body felt normal but I'm not usually bothered, but at that time, some pressure reach me. I just say' I am going to hit this one', that's why I got out, I planned that one before I did it. I'm supposed to play each ball on its merit. When it leaves the bowlers hand I plan it, but I picked the wrong ball, because he normally bowl off spin and he bowled the 'wrong un', the doosra, because the guy was bowling like Muralithuran."

"I cursed, because I knew that the team was depending on me especially in the Finals so I should stay there and work around the ball when the spin came on. I didn't do that, I got a bit over confident. I suffer from that a lot. Sometime, I just think I can do anything with the bat."

And when you watch him bat, you come away with that feeling too. But don't go away with the impression that he thinks he is the greatest. In fact, I mentioned to him a preview about last year's competition, where he was one of the players to watch. There was reference made to 'Yagga-like batting strokes". He looked surprised to hear that then said; "Those guys were too great man, they can't mix me with those people".

According to Coach Junior Bennett; "Technically he is sound and he has a good cricket brain. He is a hard worker. He practises a lot. He is someone who really loves the game and because of that he is dedicated to it". Because of that he is competitive too and expects his team mates to produce the goods as well. Manager Fritz Harris said that is why Xavier is the Vice Captain rather than the Captain even though he is in his fourth year at this level. As captain, he demands much of his players.

Xavier's explanation though of why he is not captain, is a little different from the Manager's. He said "they say I'm a bit rude". He acknowledges that he curses sometimes, "but not just for nothing. If someone mess with me, I'm not afraid to put it on". His grandparents enforced a 'no cursing allowed' rule in the house. Xavier added that "a lot of people have spoken to me. I always listen, but I pick sense out of nonsense. Sometimes people tell you things that isn't right and you have to think what's the right things."

It is important to mention that Xavier recognizes that he needs to do something about his tendency to curse. He said "that is rude, that is bad. Yes, it's bad. I'm trying. I usually count to 10 but it seems that doesn't work for me. I try biting my nails." He will surely listen to his mother's advice though. He lists her as one of the people who makes him happy. "I love my mother. Anything she says I will go by that. She never heard me curse, is people telling her that. I'm not saying anything about that because I know it's true."

When asked to respond to rumours of an indisciplined Xavier, Fritz Harris had this to say. "Xavier is a very expressive individual and as anyone who deals with youngsters would know, there are little problems here and there which don't necessarily make them trouble makers or indisciplined boys. Our job is to guide them and show them the right way and I don't think Xavier is any different".

What makes him different though is his supreme gift especially for batting and fielding. For the latter, he has perfected the art of throwing just as strongly with his left arm as with his right. For the former, well, what can I say. Let the scorecards for the three-day U-19 competition speak for themselves. 188, 48, 47, 59, 25, 103, 60 and 45 for a grand total of 575. This earned him the Most Outstanding Batsman award.

Next on Xavier's career path is to get invited to the trials to select Jamaica's team for the regional one day tournament which starts on October 8th. Coach Bennett believes he has what it takes. Said Bennett: "It is important that he gets into the Jamaica team and I don't think he is far off because he has been scoring the runs and he looks the part. I think he would be ready to play in a tournament like that. He just has to go to the senior trials and score the runs there and I have no doubt he will go there and score some runs there. I believe he could very well be a part of that make up".

How many of you know that we could have been talking of Xavier Marshall in the past tense, had fate not intervened one day in 2003? Marshall tells the story:

"The Jamaica team was at Melbourne [in Kingston] training and I left some of my stuff at Sabina. Leon Garrick [former West Indies opener] said he was going down to St Ann as training finished. I told him I had some things at Sabina Park, he said he couldn't wait so I said 'see you when I come down'. When I was going down I saw this black Honda turned across the road. When I heard the news I heard it was him. I felt happy that I missed it. [Out comes the dialect now] Maybe me would an' dead, maybe me woulda try and do something [to escape from the vehicle as it was about to crash]." Luckily, there was no serious injury to either Garrick or his team mate Lorenzo Ingram.

Well, some divine power was on Xavier Marshall's side that day, and it seems it is still with him. His grandparents heaped an extra dose on their grandson as he was leaving to go away to prepare for the World Cup. "They said 'May God be with you'," recalls Marshall. And when he's home, he likes to go to church with them. The name of the church? Grateful Hill Baptist. Quite aptly named.

After you've watched him, you'll be grateful that you have had the chance to see someone so young, so gifted and totally West Indian.