Kemar Roach started this England tour with figures of 5/43 in a rain-hit warm-up match against Essex at Chelmsford. There is nothing special about these figures at first glance. But for Kemar Roach it meant everything. He was back in the West Indian Test fold after a hiatus of two long years after leading their bowling attack for close to five years.
The last time he donned the white jersey for the Windies was way back in 2015 against the Australians in Sydney, a series which he will remember for a very long time. Roach had not only gone wicket-less in the three Test matches on that tour but had also conceded 247 runs in 41 overs at an economy rate of 6.02. Even in this modern era of big bats and T20 cricket, those are abysmal figures.
Dropped from the Test side for the home Tests against India, Roach took forever to get back to the team. It took a stellar domestic season in the West Indian First-class competition, Professional Cricket League, to propel Roach back into Test contention. He took 23 wickets at 16.17 for Barbados which helped him board that flight to England alongside fellow seamers, Shannon Gabriel, Jason Holder, Miguel Cummins and Alzarri Joseph.
Four of them - Roach, Holder, Cummins and Joseph - played the series opener against England at Birmingham. Roach may not even have figured in West Indies’ plans for that Test if it were not for his five-for in the warm-up combined with Gabriel's 24 no-balls.
But with the pink ball in hand, Roach revelled. He bowled with purpose and consistency, constantly threatening the England batsmen with sheer pace and seam movement. But England won emphatically because Roach found little to no support from his fellow seamers.
At Headingly, in the second Test, the tides changed. Roach had Shannon Gabriel for company and the duo worked over the English batsmen with pace, lateral movement and swing. Roach was spectacular in that first innings at Headingly. He finished with figures of 4/71 but could very well have bowled out England for much lesser had the slip fielder hung onto a Ben Stokes edge he produced. Stokes went on to compile a fine hundred but importantly England were restricted to 258.
That spell effectively turned West Indies’ series around. Their batsmen took inspiration from a splendid show by the seamers and took the visitors to a rare victory, levelling the series 1-1. It was an odd week for Test cricket. Bangladesh had beaten Australia and England were beaten by a depleted West Indian outfit.
Things seemingly returned to order this week when Bangladesh were thumped by Australia and Ben Stokes and James Anderson bowled West Indies out for 123 in the series decider at Lord's on Day 1.
But one man, Kemar Roach, wasn't ready to give up without a fight. He was West Indies’ most experienced player with 39 Tests under his belt when he walked out at Lord's for the third and final Test of the series. He had spurred on his teammates right through the series with jaw-dropping performances with the ball.
He was always capable of that. When he entered the International scene as a raw, pacy fast bowler there was something about him that evoked memories of a 1980s West Indian fast bowler. He took on the Australian juggernaut at home and picked up ten wickets in a Test, creating havoc with a combination of sheer pace and seam movement. He even sent Ricky Ponting to the hospital with a hostile short ball. The former Australian skipper is one of the best players on the hook and pull. To beat him for pace and slam him on his hands required a special effort.
The Roach on Day 1 at Lord's on Thursday elicited all those memories. He bowled with spring in his steps and had sent back Mark Stoneman by the third over of the England innings. But West Indies needed that man, Alastair Cook, early with just 123 on the board. Roach knew this and had planned it all out. He came around the stumps, an angle which has troubled Alastair Cook in this series, and moved the ball away from him, inducing an outside edge that the keeper gobbled up, reducing England to 15/2 in 12 overs. It was relentless stuff from the Barbados fast bowler.
Roach returned on Day 2 with Dawid Malan and Ben Stokes resurrecting the England innings, which was faltering away against the West Indian fast bowlers. All it took him was 10 balls to eke out the next breakthrough. He shortened his length and moved the ball in to find Malan’s outside edge.
Next up was Johnny Bairstow. The wicket-keeper batsman and Ben Stokes were on the counter-attack, taking England closer to West Indies’ first innings score but the former was clearly struggling against Roach's rhythm. In one Roach over, Bairstow played and missed thrice. When Roach returned from the other end, he once again beat Bairstow's bat twice in an over and forced an edge from Ben Stokes only to see the ball race past gully for a boundary. Roach was plain unlucky. Any other day, he would have had seven wickets to his name by then.
A few overs later he surprised the wicket-keeper with a delivery that took off from the surface. Bairstow responded with a thrashing cover drive for four the next ball. But Roach came back roaring to trap the England batsman in front with a peach of a delivery. It was inevitable. Bairstow was struggling against Roach's impeccable lines and lateral seam movement all through the innings. In fact, his record against Roach is abysmal. In 44 balls, Bairstow has been dismissed thrice by Roach and averages under seven against him.
When Gabriel cleaned up Stokes twice - one off a no-ball - West Indies were slowly starting to sniff a chance but still needed to get past Moeen Ali, who had tormented bowling attacks with his aggressive batting from No 8. But Roach was in no mood to let England off the hook this time around. He pushed one wide off Ali to tempt a drive and found the edge that gully snaffled up to end England's final resistance.
Roach had five to his name and had etched down his name in the Lord's Honours Board, becoming the eighth West Indian bowler to do so. This was no mean feat for a bowler whose career had looked done and dusted at Sydney two years back. He had come back and how!
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