Jason Holder is 6'7". He normally operates around the 78-82mph-mark and whenever you see him bowl, you wonder why he isn’t quicker. Perhaps it’s because when we see him, we are reminded of Curtly Ambrose, the equally tall West Indian great who was best known for his absolute control of line and length, but who dispensed pace like fire as well, especially in his youth.
One reason given for Holder’s lack of pace is a collapsing front leg as he delivers. Ideally, the front leg should be braced. A collapsing front leg serves to dissipate energy, sapping the bowler of pace as well as reducing the height from which he delivers. This flaw, if it is that, has long been discussed by experts viewing Holder’s action, and so it is surprising that it remains.
But different bowlers have different methods and exhibit different qualities. High pace was a part of Ambrose’s arsenal. Holder, on the other hand, will not scare anyone. Ambrose, for a while, lived in Garner’s shadow, much like Holder has been living in his. The difference is Ambrose lived up to and even exceeded those expectations. Holder has not.
At least not as of yet. Recently, though, he has been showing signs that he might well be a formidable bowler in the making. He might not get to the level that Ambrose reached, for those are gigantic shoes to fill. But he is fast growing into one of the game’s elite seamers.
Since the Sri Lankan series in June, Holder has been like a bowler transformed. Fortuitously for the West Indies, the tall Barbadian appears to have discovered himself afresh. He was always a diligent performer, always gave his all. But if he was previously an honest workman, sweating away with unsharpened tools, he is now becoming a highly-skilled craftsman possessing some of the best skills of the trade.
In the recently-concluded Test against India at the Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium in Hyderabad, a game India won easily, Holder had impressive figures of 5/56 in the first innings. It was his fourth five-wicket haul in four games and it was the first time a West Indies pacer took five wickets in an innings in India since 1994. He has had a fabulous 2018. For bowlers taking 30 or more wickets in a calendar year, his 33 scalps have come at a miserly average of 11.87, the lowest for a fast-bowler in a hundred years.
Not that long ago, the Windies captain was part of a four-man bowling attack that regularly took the field for the West Indies. But he always seemed to lack the level of penetration that should come with that position. That view had to be revised after his performance in Barbados against Sri Lanka in June. Holder showed that he has much more to offer as a bowler, at least much more than he had shown prior to that encounter.
He achieved then career-best match figures of 9/60, a haul he improved upon two games later when he captured 11/103 against Bangladesh in Jamaica. And though the Kensington Oval surface was helpful to seam bowling, one realised, plainly, that this was the West Indian captain’s best bowling display.
He had always generated swing but had not found a compelling enough length and an effective enough off-stump line to make his bowling the most troublesome it could be. Since that Barbados game, however, he has been swinging the ball more than ever, and, importantly, has employed a fuller length and a more threatening line. His nine scalps were just rewards but so frequently was he beating the bat that he could well have snared a few more wickets.
In July, against Bangladesh in Antigua, Holder continued his remarkable swing-bowling display, this time capturing five wickets in the game for just 40 runs. He might have had a few more there as well, but Kemar Roach in the first innings and Shannon Gabriel in the second grabbed a number of early wickets, leaving Holder and the other bowlers that came afterward to share the rest.
In Jamaica, the hapless Bangladeshis were overwhelmed by swing and disconcerting bounce. An inferior opposition, you may say. Still, the skills he displayed were again hard to miss: the improved off-stump line, outswing, and a fuller length that the batsmen found more problematic.
Focussed swing is a recent acquisition. But it is not his only weapon. In late 2016, the West Indies beat Pakistan by five wickets in the last game of a three-Test series, a series the Pakistanis won 2-1. Holder’s 5/30 in the second innings was vital in setting up his side’s victory by dismissing Pakistan cheaply for 208. The Sharjah surface had life, which the bowler exploited with a mostly short-pitched assault on the Pakistani batsmen. He bounced out a number of batsmen, which is not surprising given that his height facilitates lift off the surface, the kind of lift that forced Ajinkya Rahane to stab a catch to gully in Hyderabad.
Many have pointed to his gentle pace as one reason he’ll probably not fulfill the role of a strike bowler. Yet there are examples of strike bowlers operating below express pace. The most recent notable example is Vernon Philander, who has forged a stellar career as one of the most potent bowlers in the game while propelling his deliveries at a velocity similar to Holder’s. The South African’s weapons are movement and almost faultless accuracy rather than raw pace.
Holder’s bowling average, currently at 28.5, has been falling precipitously. Less than a year ago he averaged over 38. He still has a long way to travel, but his figures are fast improving. Ambrose, remember, averaged 20.99. And while it may be unfair to compare a middle-of-the-road student to the genius at the very top of the class, Holder’s hard work and dedication to his craft could move him from mediocre to good and then to great. Great height may be the only thing Holder and Ambrose have in common but there are different paths that lead to the same destination. You travel the one most amenable to your strengths.
And then there is his batting.
There were pundits who held the view that Holder’s batting is better and would outshine his bowling. But that was before his recent impressive showings with the ball. In just a few games, it seems his bowling has leaped miles ahead of where it previously was.
Still, his batting exudes class. In 35 Tests, he averages 30.47 with two centuries and eight half-centuries, including his most recent at Hyderabad. Like his bowling, his batting appears to be improving as well and he has been one of his sides most reliable run-scorers of late. And though that is primarily due to an under-performing batting line-up, he has been forthright and consistent batting at seven or eight, and has extracted the West Indies from many a troubling situation.
Holder is, therefore, growing into his role as the team’s all-rounder. “That’s my ultimate goal,” he said in an interview a few months ago, “is to be in the all-rounder’s position, and to be seen as a genuine all-*rounder.”
He is well on the way to becoming worthy of that title. Ben Stokes is a mainstay of the England team and considered one of the game’s premier allrounders. Holder's figures are comparable to his. Ambrose, not long ago his bowling coach, must be exceedingly proud of his former student’s progress.