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Marlon Samuels’ Hollywood story: From troubled underachiever to elite performer – Almanack

by Tony Cozier 5 minute read

Marlon Samuels took years to mature as an international cricketer, but his performances on West Indies’ tour of England in 2012 made him a Wisden Cricketer of the Year the following spring. Here’s what Tony Cozier had to say in the 2013 almanack.

The transformation of Marlon Samuels from troubled underachiever to elite performer read like a Hollywood script. The steady improvement of West Indies after years of similar frustration was no coincidence. Together they served as a reminder that, for all the headlines gathered by Samuels’s fellow Jamaican Usain Bolt and the other Caribbean medalists at the London Olympics, it was cricket that first established the region’s reputation for sporting excellence.

The performances of Samuels in England surprised many, if not the man himself. In three Tests, he failed to pass 50 only once in five innings, averaged more than 96, and made the stump mic essential listening with his ice-cool rejoinders to the sledging. More runs at home to New Zealand soon after confirmed this was no fluke and, by the time he was winning the World Twenty20 final almost on his own, he had established himself in the upper echelons of global batsmanship. A maiden Test double-hundred followed in Bangladesh. It was some turnaround – and only a little of the sheen was removed when he became involved in a petty altercation with Shane Warne in Australia’s Big Bash League early in 2013.

Fast-tracked into the Test team at the age of 19 after only seven first-class matches, Samuels was restricted to 29 caps and an average of 29 over the next eight years because of his cavalier approach. He was also forced to remedy his flawed off-spinner’s action. When he was found guilty of links with a Dubai- based bookmaker ahead of a one-day international at Nagpur in January 2007, and banned for two years, even from club cricket, the feeling was that Samuels – who protested his innocence – might have been swayed towards another profession. His good looks and lithe physique had already earned him work as a male model. Instead, the affair stiffened his resolve.

“All I ever wanted to do was play international cricket and make a name for myself,” he says. “The two years that were taken away enabled me to look at myself. I never thought of quitting. I made up my mind that I was going to come back and show them that nothing could break me that easily.”

He adopted a rigorous routine. Morning work in the gym from eight to 11 was followed by afternoon sessions in the nets against the bowling machine or willing friends, then yoga in the evening. Though never a heavy drinker, he gave up alcohol altogether. His suspension ended in May 2010, and his form in the Caribbean’s regional four-day competition the following year (853 runs at 65) guaranteed a swift recall to international cricket. He inevitably took time to readapt, and even turned down the chance to play at the 2011 World Cup, telling the selectors he was “not 100% ready”. And there were further problems when he signed belatedly for Pune Warriors ahead of the 2012 Indian Premier League, knowing the tournament clashed with a home Test series against Australia.

Samuels made 386 runs in five Test innings on West Indies’ tour of England in 2012

But the West Indies Cricket Board agreed to his suggested compromise – skip Australia, play the first half of the IPL, then rejoin his international teammates in England. His reason for preferring the chill of a northern spring to the challenge of facing Australia on home territory revealed an ambition not previously obvious: “England, not Australia, were the No.1 team at the time, and I felt that, if I could dominate against them, it would push me closer to being No.1 in the world.”

Immediately, it became clear this was no braggadocio. Scores of 31 and 86 at Lord’s, 117 and 76 not out at Trent Bridge, and 76 at Edgbaston were compiled with the effortless elegance that had always typified his batting; now he came with diligence too. Two months later in the Caribbean, on the 50th anniversary of Jamaica’s independence he made 123 in a first-innings total of 209 against New Zealand in his native Kingston, then carried West Indies to a 2-0 triumph with a second-innings 52. In October in Colombo, his breathtaking 78 off 56 balls paved the way for victory over Sri Lanka in the final of the World Twenty20. No one – not even Chris Gayle and his Gangnam Style dancing – embodied their renaissance better than Samuels.

Those who remembered him as a boy prodigy were surprised only that his talents had taken so long to bear fruit. Marlon Nathaniel Samuels, born in Kingston to Philip and Daphne on January 5, 1981, was nurtured at Melbourne, one of Jamaica’s most renowned clubs, and Kingston College – a school with a rich sporting tradition and a cricket coach, Roy McLean, whom Samuels credits with first recognising, then shaping, his rare ability. He hoped one of the first initiatives of his new Marlon Samuels Foundation would be to renovate Kingston College’s facilities.

His parents had no special love for cricket, but he and his four brothers (plus three sisters) enjoyed the advantage of living within walking distance of Melbourne, where they could rub shoulders with Michael Holding and Courtney Walsh. Robert, the eldest, and ten years Marlon’s senior, was a solid left-handed opener who went on to captain Jamaica and play six Tests, against New Zealand and Australia in the late 1990s. Twins David and Daniel were useful club players. But Marlon was the special one.

Samuels starred with the bat in both of West Indies’ T20 WC triumphs, in 2012 and in 2016, scoring 78 and 85* in the respective finals

By the age of 15, he had reeled off 16 hundreds for college and club, and Jamaica included him in their Red Stripe Cup side a year later, with Walsh captain and Robert an opener. But dismissed for two and one on debut, Marlon was immediately consigned to the youth team. The West Indies selectors were more convinced, though, picking him for two successive Under-19 World Cups, and two matches against the touring Pakistanis in 1999-2000. When Shivnarine Chanderpaul succumbed to injury on the tour of Australia later that year, Samuels was summoned. They might as well have tossed him to the saltwater crocs.

But their hunch was justified: in his second Test, at the MCG, he made an unbeaten 60 out of 165, then 46 out of 109. He would beat even Brian Lara to the top of West Indies’ series averages. Wisden remarked on his “impressive cool”. But in the years ahead there was too much cool and not enough substance. Viv Richards, then the travelling chief selector, wanted to send him home from a tour of India in 2002-03 for breaking the team curfew. The board disagreed, and at Eden Gardens he scored his maiden Test hundred in his only innings of the series. His first one-day international century quickly followed, at Vijayawada. Yet Samuels soon dissolved into irritating inconsistency. And he was perplexed and unsettled by it all.

“I never knew when I’d be playing from one match to the next, so I couldn’t plan my game as I wanted,” he says. “I kept hearing I was left out for some attitude problem, but they never explained to me what it supposedly was. I just kept on hearing that I was too cool, too laid back.”

It was no coincidence that he approached his best in South Africa, in 2007- 08, almost as soon as Gayle, a compatriot and trusted friend, took over the captaincy. Samuels compiled his second Test hundred, at Durban, and averaged 52. Then in quick succession came the problem with his action and the ICC ban. His future was in obvious doubt. Yet his spirited resurrection ensures it no longer is.

Samuels’ finished his Test career in 2016 with seven Test centuries to his name, months after hitting another match-winning hand in a World T20 final.

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