The track at Sabina Park in Kingston, in times gone by, when West Indies ruled the cricket world, used to have a sheen that intimidated the visiting teams for the pace it held. As West Indies were looking to square the series at Jamaica after being thrashed at Antigua, a pitch that bore a very different look from its past welcomed the teams; green grass with a bit of moisture with cracks already visible.
Jason Holder, on a more placid wicket in Antigua used a four-man seam attack but at Jamaica, decided that he along with Kemar Roach and Shannon Gabriel would be sufficient to take the seam bowling duties and handed debut to Antiguan Rahkeem Cornwall who would bowl 27 out of the 90 overs on his first day of Test cricket.
Holder has had to carry a lot of responsibilities in this West Indian side: be a capable third seamer that can switch between attack and defense; bat by taking his time or look to score fast lower down the order; marshal the troops as the captain. That is a lot to put on any one player’s plate but he keeps showing up, every game.
As he won the toss - again - and decided to bowl first - again, the Gabriel that Holder would’ve wanted to take advantage of the pitch that was “challenging” went missing. And so, it would be Holder that stepped up in the breach to slow the Indian charge by dismissing KL Rahul in his very first over of the Test.
Holder hit that nagging length and used his height to generate bounce and skill to produce sideways movement from a supportive pitch, and caught Rahul unsure of how to deal with the delivery. The edge produced off a tentative defensive prod would be swallowed by Cornwall, and the combo would repeat the act to dismiss the other Indian opener Mayank Agarwal too, in the second session.
Agarwal was full of praise for the trouble Holder caused to the Indian batsmen by controlling scoring with his immaculate control of length and keeping batsmen honest with his ability to generate disconcerting bounce. “[He] is bowling great areas. He is not giving you an inch. He was pegging [away] at length and short of length. He doesn’t give you many easy deliveries to score off, so the pressure is always there. Even if you defend him off, he has bowled a 6-7 overs spell and [he has bowled] three or four maidens. As a batsman, you know you are not getting much out of him.”
As West Indies made inroads and kept Virat Kohli quiet, they would be kicking themselves for not having taken more wickets in the first session. As the day wore on and the moisture from the pitch evaporated from the hot Jamaican sun, the pitch “got a little better to bat on.” Having negotiated his way through some early troubles, Kohli had gotten into his stride.
Gorgeous strokes flowed from the “MRF Genius” bat of Kohli; straight drive that pinged the boundaries, majestic cover drives that scorched the turf, and fabulously working wrists flicking fuller length deliveries to midwicket fence. India dominated the second session making 85 runs for the loss of only Agarwal.
Even as a seemingly luckless Roach removed Rahane, Kohli’s wicket held the key. The Indian captain seemed well-set for his 26th Test hundred when, in the final session of the day, in his 18th over, Holder would change up the tactic briefly on Kohli.
He came around the wicket for four deliveries, one of them hitting Kohli on his hand, and went back over the wicket. The last ball of that over would see Holder attempt to get some lateral movement; the ball zipped past the bat of the well-set Indian skipper. Kohli had faced 159 deliveries at that point. To beat that good a batsman, that far into his innings, with a ball that was 71-overs old? Holder was fantastic on the day, with the ball.
With his very next delivery, Holder removed Kohli with conventional outswing off a ball delivered perfectly at good length. While the previous delivery beat the inside edge, this delivery took the outside to strand Kohli 24 short of what would have been a well-deserved century.
Even as Gabriel and Roach bowled higher percentage of their deliveries that the Indians were not in control of, Holder mixed deliveries that batsmen were able to handle but deny them scoring opportunities, and bowl those that could pluck wickets. In all, in the 120 deliveries that Holder sent down for the day, the batsmen were not in control for only 15 but that produced three dismissals. The figures of 20-6-39-3 clearly indicates the ability of Holder to shut down scoring while also taking wickets. Rightly, Agarwal would credit Holder for he “just kept coming” at the batsmen, “bowling tight lines” throughout the day.
Despite the inspirational effort from Holder, India would be the happier team at the close of play having survived on a tough wicket and made 264 runs while losing just five wickets. Holder will need his senior bowlers to chip in with early wickets on Day 2 to claw West Indies back in the contest. Else, like the way the sheen has vanished from the Sabina Park surface, Holder’s masterful bowling on Day 1 would too, from the memory of those who witnessed it.