Had you travelled the Caribbean ahead of the England series and asked cricket fans if they thought the West Indies had it in them to win the series, only a handful of hopeless optimists might have answered in the affirmative. The suggestion that the West Indies would win the first two Tests would have invited eye-rolls and howls of “are you crazy”.
This was the team, remember, that was clobbered by Bangladesh barely two months ago and by India before that. The team ranked eighth was going up against the third best Test cricket squad in the world. This was also the team that had endured a long dark period, marked by discord, disappointments and dismal performances on the field.
The dark days stretched so long even the most ardent of supporters thought they would ever end. The West Indies had dominated cricket for nearly two decades. That great era, however, was lodged in the distant past. Return to those glory days was not even on the horizon.
But, then the English came and were crushed. The Caribbean began to dream again. Two Twenty20 World Cup wins had offered a glimpse into their capabilities in cricket’s briefest format. Now, they were flexing muscles in the other formats as well.
To be sure, the West Indies had shown signs of life earlier as well. They won a famous victory at Headingley in August 2017 and beat Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates in October 2016 and then at home in May 2017. But, then they quickly slid back to their wasteful ways.
What appeared to be new beginnings, especially to the more optimistic among us (we often hear that cricket needs a good West Indies team), were simply fluctuations in performance over the course of time. Every now and then the team would flatter to deceive with a good performance. It wasn’t a sign of a turnaround. It just meant they did unusually well or the opposition was particularly bad.
This time, however, things seemed different. The wins came on the back of a potent pace-bowling attack, once the mainstay of West Indies cricket.
Writing in The Hindu some years ago, former Australian captain and batting great Greg Chappell said: “If a team cannot take 20 wickets, it will not win consistently. It is bowlers who win Test matches; batsmen set them up or finish them off.”
“Don't misunderstand me — I am not saying that batting is not important; it is, but, there is a better, sure-fire way of building a world-beating team: focus on finding a well-balanced attack that can take wickets in all conditions.”
“Out and out pace has to be the first, and second, priority.”
“Failing that, you want variety, including bounce; bounce, above all else, gets good players out.”
The West Indies appear to have that now, and since it is a fairly young attack, it should serve them well for years to come. At 30, Shannon Gabriel and Kemar Roach have a few years left in them, and Alzarri Joseph, Jason Holder, Keemo Paul and Oshane Thomas are all in their early to mid-20s.
All have serious wicket-taking capabilities. As a unit, they brandish all the tools of the trade.
Gabriel and Thomas are both capable of formidable pace, the kind that unsettle even the most composed batsman.
Roach is the team’s most skilled bowler. No longer the young tearaway whose pace so discomfited Ricky Ponting, he is now a master of swing and seam, with a particularly effective method of troubling lefthanders from round the wicket.
No bowler has improved as much as Holder over the past 18 months or so. The tall Barbadian is sixth on the ICC Test bowler rankings despite his gentle pace. Standing at 6’ 7”, he precipitates steep bounce. The away swing he generates from a full length is both beautiful and deadly, allowing him to reap a wad of wickets.
Joseph delivers away swing at pace and showed the stuff he was made of by the way he stood up and bowled in Antigua following news of his mother’s passing.
Paul, who like Joseph -- and Shimron Hetmyer, too, by the way -- were members of the West Indies’ under-19 World Cup winning team of 2016, displayed remarkable fast-bowling skills during the third Test in St Lucia. He suffered an unfortunate injury but will undoubtedly find himself in or around the team as soon as he recovers.
The Caribbean side has the good fortune of having Holder not only as batsman and bowler but also as Test and ODI captain. Composed and thoughtful, Holder has been an inspiration to his men. If his tactics are sometimes pedestrian, his leadership seems to foster the kind of team spirit that enable players to punch above their weight.
Elevated to the captaincy at 23, many questioned the wisdom of Clive Lloyd and the selectors in giving him the job even as he was learning the game. Three or so years later, however, everyone seems impressed with Holder, both as a player and a leader. He is world’s best allrounder in Test cricket.
There is also the important matter of players and the authorities calling a truce. While it may be too early to say the days of acrimony are over, things have been quiet of late, a much more constructive state of affairs.
Professionalising the regional four-day competition may have also helped. A number of players are now fully employed in cricket, so they have the time to improve their game. That ought to have some effect on the overall standard of cricket in the Caribbean.
But before we get carried away, we should acknowledge that the West Indies Test team is still some way off from being the finished article. Batting is one department that can do with improvement. Twenty wickets per game should always be the primary consideration but runs are also important, and not enough batsmen are scoring them. Still, no one should have misgivings about the serious potential of a lineup that has players like Kraigg Brathwaite, Shai Hope, Darren Bravo, Hetmyer, Dowrich and Holder.
So, while the West Indies have come a far way, they still have a long way to go. The way out of the darkness will likely be long and testing but a start has been made. Caribbean cricket has been in the doldrums for a long time. It is time for it to rise.
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BCCI President Sourav Ganguly confirmed the schedule for the series planned in February-March while speaking at an online event.
Santner and Mitchell are also members of the New Zealand squad which will meet the West Indies in three Twenty20 internationals starting Friday.
West Indies team has been in isolation since arriving in New Zealand on 30 October for the T20I and Test series. All the members had cleared the first two rounds of testing.