Shortly before writing this article, I read a piece elsewhere, describing the current Test series between India and West Indies in the Caribbean — and especially the drawn second match in Jamaica — as perhaps the most boring Test cricket the viewer had ever watched. Well, to each his own: one man’s stimulation is another’s tedium.
Myself, I find little more riveting in five-day cricket than watching a hard-fought, backs-to-the-wall, attritional rearguard action from an oppressed team — that yet somehow manages to hang on and save the day.
Naturally, that ‘tension’, that ‘excitement’, is more likely to be ratcheted up if you support the team that’s doing its damnedest to hang on. I concede that it can be greatly frustrating for the fan of the superior team that’s unable to execute the coup de grace, but surely not boring? Maybe the boredom stems from a lack of personal investment in either side?
I doubt there was a single committed West Indies cricket supporter who was not consumed with passion this week – following events in the Sabina Park Test Match via the TV or radio — as a young unknown from Barbados, with the aid of a handful of colleagues, resisted and successfully withheld the best attempts of over-throwall by Virat Kohli’s Indian tourists.
Roston Chase. As the fine Trinidadian commentator Ian Bishop said famously of another previously unheralded West Indian only a few months ago: “remember the name”.
Chase, a Bajan all-rounder in only his second Test Match, produced an innings of class and maturity to turn a certain loss in the second game of this four-match series into a highly commendable and respectable draw.
Young Roston is twenty-four and hails from the South Coast of Barbados, not-so-far from Bridgetown and the Kensington Oval. His club is Empire – the wonderful, tiny stonewall-surrounded postage-stamp ground full of history and greatness, where legends like Sir Frank Worrell and Sir Everton Weekes learnt their craft and exhibited their genius to the regular thrill of the packed ground – with thousands gathering to witness the greats in close proximity.
Chase has been in-and-around the Barbados national XI’s set-up for about five years, and until last year was considered mainly as a batsman. In his first three seasons he failed to consolidate a place in the island’s first-choice XI, making only one fifty in fifteen innings – while enjoying some success as an occasional off-spinner.
His breakthrough came in 2014/15, the first season of the WICB’s newly constituted, and professionalized Professional Cricket League four-day regional first-class competition. He exceeded five hundred runs for the first-time; scored his maiden first-class century; and finished with a healthy average of 44.
In the following season, the League’s second, he progressed markedly and exceeded those figures: 710 runs at 59, with six scores above 50 in 16 innings. And for the first time too, his bowling was utilized as more than just an optional variation. Barbados' first-choice Test-Match playing slow-left-armers, Sulieman Benn and Jomel Warrican were both unavailable, largely on international duty – so Chase stepped up to support first-choice off-spinner Ashley Nurse as second spinner. Twenty-three wickets at 17 with two five-wicket-in-an-innings performances were evidence that Chase was now a genuine all-rounder – and that he was an early successful product of the new system.
The WICB’s PCL is the framework upon which the Board is attempting to rebuild West Indian cricket. Envisaged and put into operation by Director of Cricket Richard Pybus, this is the structure that it’s hoped will produce the new generation of Caribbean cricketers in a more modern, disciplined and professional environment.
The concept suffered immediate fall-out: the re-allocation of funds from the earnings of the established international West Indies players into paying for the costs of the tournament and the wages of the newly professional cricketers caused much bitterness among the elite senior playing group, and distrust between them and the two authorities which sanctioned the change: the West Indies Cricket Board and the players’ own union, the West Indies Players Association. As a consequence, most of those internationals parted company with their own representative body. The friction culminated in the disastrous tour of India in 2014 and the strike by the Windies ODI team led by Dwayne Bravo. The disharmony between the opposing factions continues to this day.
Refinancing West Indies cricket, and basically investing in developing future talent to the likely detriment of the 'here and now' — and the resulting loss of the established generation of cricketers like Chris Gayle and Dwayne Bravo — was a massive gamble by Pybus and the Board. In the success of Chase, and fellow heroic match-saving team-mates like Jermaine Blackwood, Shane Dowrich, and skipper, Jason Holder they may be witnessing the first indications of some reward on their speculative investment.
But this is not going to be an easy process – and may make for tough viewing. The West Indies have a huge gulf to make up to approach the ability in class and experience of teams like India. Many further hidings — like they took in their recent tour of Australia; in the first Test in Antigua; and as seemed likely in Jamaica — may have to be endured. But these young players need to learn how to make victory a tougher proposition for their opponents than has recently been the case before they learn how to win themselves. Realism and pragmatism must play a part.
For a start, they simply don’t appear to have the firepower or guile to take twenty wickets in a match – the prerequisite of winning any Test. But until they do so, they must learn to make it a priority to sell their own twenty wickets as dearly as possible – a lesson that some of the side, with Chase at the vanguard, so valiantly learned in Kingston.
Witnessing the inevitable defeat turn gradually from an unlikely stay-of-execution, through hearty defiance, into improbable survival and then possible, and eventual, redemption was thoroughly engrossing – and totally heat-warming for a Caribbean cricket follower. In the best Dunkirk spirit, this escape, this draw, felt more like a triumph.
Yet for some sports-watchers such a result is simultaneously inefficient and incongruous – maybe even incomprehensible. Some Test cricket lovers enjoy satirising the cliched American attitude that cannot conceive of the point of a five-day contest finishing inconclusively. Others agree with that viewpoint. Personally, I still gain great joy from the absurdity of the one format of cricket that has, as yet, thankfully resisted the need to embrace either net run-rates or super-overs in order to sate the cravings of an audience with the shortest of attention spans. Andy Warhol memorably spoke of people one-day being ‘famous for fifteen minutes’. I foresee and fear a future when that is the duration of an entire cricket match.
Warhol understood the respective value of art and culture: he knew that popular culture, like colourful images of soup tins, have their place. He was equally aware that ‘watching paint dry’ can be an artistic experience: his eight-hour movie ‘Empire’ was one continuous static shot of the Empire State Building. The experience of watching reveals more about the viewer than the subject matter.
By the end of the Sabina Park Test Match, Roston Chase looked as impressive and as immovable an edifice as that New York superstructure. His monumental performance towered over the previous performances and contributions in the match. His innings was both artistry, and service.
I do hope that his renown will endure longer than a quarter of an hour.