Teams travelling to New Zealand expect, in the main, to be confronted by seam and swing on green pitches against bowlers practiced in the art. Yet, in two Tests against the West Indies, the ball rarely swung or deviated off the surface. Instead, the visitors’ batting was incapacitated by steep lift from deliveries pounded into the square and honing in on the upper body of ill-equipped batsmen.
The main protagonist of the short-pitched assault, Neil Warner, captured 14 wickets in the series. He totally dismembered the West Indies’ first innings in Wellington with a career-best 7/39. The left-arm seamer is a skillful user of the bouncer, bowling it regularly and accurately. The West Indies batsmen could simply not answer the questions he posed.
His rewards in the second Test were not as bountiful. But, he still did significant damage, especially in the second innings where he captured the important wickets of Shai Hope, Roston Chase, and Shane Dowrich.
Hope’s dismissal might have been something of a turning point in the innings. The batsman appeared to be reasonably untroubled before Wagner struck him painfully on the forearm. Obviously rattled, he underwent repairs on the field before hooking the very next delivery down the throat of the fielder at deep backward square leg.
It is also ironic that the batsmen victimised by this mode of attack are from the Caribbean, lands that produced fast bowlers in such numbers a few decades ago that quite a few of their reserves would likely have made it into almost every other Test side. Now the tables have turned, and it is time for others to do to them what bowlers like Michael Holding and Malcolm Marshall and Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh regularly did to others.
Ian Bishop, another of the pace-bowling greats, lamented on commentary that a generation of West Indian batsmen have been brought up without sufficient experience combatting the short ball. For more than a decade now it is spin that has dominated the West Indies first-class competition. Slow and low surfaces, the kind that mostly prevails, facilitates spin and retards pace. The Islands are no longer the home of the great fast men, or, concomitantly, of batsmen with the wherewithal to successfully negotiate short-pitched bowling.
The West Indies could not have been taken by surprise by Warner’s methods. It has borne him significant success recently, catapulting him into the top 10 of the ICC rankings. Everybody knows it is his preferred way. But, spotting your adversary coming a mile away only helps if you have the artillery to repel them. If you don’t, then the best you can hope are for ways to delay their advance. Either way, you’ll be defeated in the end.
The West Indies batsmen are mostly young and inexperienced. The oldest of the top seven is opener Kieran Powell at 27, with 29 Tests to his name before this series. His partner and stand-in captain for the second Test, Kraigg Brathwaite had 42 Tests and is the only batsman to come out the series with reasonable returns, having scored 201 runs. Nobody else has more than Dowrich’s 18 games.
Shimron Hetmyer, placed — erroneously many feel — in the pivotal number three position, had one innings of note. His 66 in the second innings of the Wellington Test showcased a dashing batsman of rare shot-making ability. But the 20-year-old also showed impatience and injudiciousness in his choice of deliveries to attack. There is no mistaking his quality, however, and the West Indies would be well advised to provide special nurturing for the Guyanese left-hander.
Sunil Ambris made his debut in Wellington and had something of a nightmare series. The first ball he received at Wellington forced him so far back that he trod on his stumps. In the second innings, he got off the mark by pulling Trent Boult for six on his way to 18. At Hamilton, he again stepped on his wicket in the first inning, this time to Trent Boult. And in the second innings, he had his arm fractured by a short delivery from Wagner, meaning he will not be a part of the ODI series.
It was the first time he had been out hit wicket, reported coach Stuart Law after Wellington, offering that it would not happen again. But, then it happened again at Hamilton, revealing what must be a flaw. Test cricket can do that. It uncovers frailties previously hidden at the lower levels.
The West Indies’ bowling never came close to fulfilling its task either. New Zealand were allowed a gigantic 520/9 declared in the first Test despite being 281/6 at one point.
In the second game, the hosts again declared, this time at 291/8 in the second innings, asking the West Indies to chase an unlikely 444. Unsurprisingly, they fell short by 240 runs.
The New Zealand bowling, on the other hand, stuck well to their task. Wagner may have taken most wickets but the other bowlers were significantly threatening as well. Unlike their West Indies counterparts, who often failed to target the stumps, the New Zealand bowling unit demanded that the visiting batsmen payed close attention to most of the deliveries they faced.
When Tim Southee chose to skip the first Test to be with his wife and newborn, Matt Henry came and readily filled the role. And when Southee returned for the second Test to continue what has been a very fruitful new-ball partnership with Trent Boult, the tall, Northern Districts pacer never seemed to miss a beat.
The New Zealand batting also excelled. Ross Taylor, Colin de Grandhomme and Tom Blundell, in his debut Test, all scored centuries. Only Tom Latham and Mitchell Santner, of the top eight, didn’t cross 50 in any of the three innings in which they were required to bat, and even tailenders Boult and Southee frustrated with the visitors with a rollicking last-wicket stand of 71 during the second Test. West Indies manager and fast-bowling great, Joel Garner, could hardly avoid expressing his disappointment when interviewed afterwards.
Quite simply, the Kiwis are a more experienced team with players of superior quality. It is always tough visiting New Zealand, but the West Indies would surely have been disappointed with their efforts after the recent strides they’ve made. They underperformed in almost every department of the game: batting, bowling, wicketkeeping, fielding.
The West Indies will be in more comfortable surroundings at home against Sri Lanka in June-July 2018, but they need to improve as a team and therefore have much to do in the period leading up to the series.
New Zealand will face much stiffer opposition when England tour in March 2018. The men from the Caribbean were defeated without much fuss. But the hosts will have to dig much deeper to overcome Joe Root and his band.