Baseball hall-of-fame pitcher Sandy Koufax played for the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers for 12 seasons — 1955 to 1966. His career is often separated into two periods. The first period, from 1955 to 1960 was marked by mediocrity. There were signs of abundant talent but his performances, for various reasons, never lived up to his abilities.
The second period of his career, from 1961 onwards, was marked by excellence. A losing record quickly became a winning one and he became so dominant that he earned the coveted Cy Young award for pitchers on three occasions - 1963, 1965 and 1966.
Koufax’s turnaround didn’t occur by accident. He got fitter after the 1960 season, and with the help of others, ironed out a few deficiencies in his technique. He thought more deeply about baseball, understood his game more and and transformed himself.
For some time now, West Indies captain and all-rounder Jason Holder has been part of a four-man bowling attack. For most of that time he seemed to lack the level of penetration that such a position warranted, and one often felt — and that was borne out time and time again – that the West Indies would have difficulty collecting the necessary 20 wickets normally required to win a Test match.
His batting exuded excellence. There was a certain ease about his strokeplay. And yet his production was never consistent enough for you to think he could comfortably occupy, say, the number six slot. He was always good, just not always good enough for the highest level.
Appointed captain early in his career at 23 — too early for a number of us — the question often on the minds of cricket followers was whether he actually merited a regular spot in the struggling Caribbean side. Indeed, he was often compared to former West Indies captain Darren Sammy, a man who was frequently derided for having a spot in the team because he was captain. Like Sammy, there was no question about the quality of the man. The concern was always about his quality as a player.
But that was Jason Holder then. The Jason Holder currently captaining the West Indies against the No 2 ranked Englishmen is a different player. And on Friday, the third day of the first Test of England’s 2019 visit to the Caribbean, he had what must have been his most outstanding day as cricketer.
From 229 balls, Holder blazed an authoritative, unbeaten 202 to drag his side to 415/6 declared, setting a mammoth 628 target for England to chase. His alliance with fellow Barbadian and good friend Shane Dowrich, who himself compiled a patient 116 not out, yielded 295 runs. Most of his 23 fours were expertly dispatched and exquisitely timed and his eight sixes were the most by a West Indian batsman against England.
His innings began in some strife on the second day. He arrived at the wicket with his side 120/6 and in danger of flitting away much of the advantage it gained by dismissing England for 77. Long suffering West Indies fans, knowing the fickleness of their team, would have been unsettled, fearing another capitulation.
But Holder and Dowrich held firm, and after preventing further damage on the second day went on to dominate the third, with Holder, especially, flaying the vaunted English bowling all over the Kensington Oval. It was a commanding innings that underlined his standing as a batsman of high pedigree.
“I found it very challenging up front,” Holder said at stumps. “Jimmy and Stokesy made us play a lot of deliveries in the channel, particularly Stokes with his angle and getting the ball to leave. He was a threat all day and credit to him, he made us work hard for our runs, but it was a really pleasing day, to bat up past tea and form the partnership that we did.”
West Indies fast bowling great Ian Bishop recently tweeted the following: Champion stuff from Jason Holder. 3rd Test match century. 2nd versus England. On his form of the last 14 months, across all conditions; best All-rounder in test cricket at the moment?
Champion stuff from Jason Holder. 3rd Test match century. 2nd versus England. On his form of the last 14 months, across all conditions; best All-rounder in test cricket at the moment?
— ian bishop (@irbishi) January 25, 2019
The answer, to my mind at least, is a resounding yes. Holder has simply been better than everyone else recently. Better than Shakib Al Hasan; better, even, than the highly acclaimed Ben Stokes. And to underline his recent rise, the West Indian captain was named in the ICC Test team of 2018.
In 2018 Holder collected 33 wickets in six games at a remarkable average of 12.39, the second lowest in 100 years. His strike rate, 27.3, was better than everyone else’s. And now he has begun 2019 with a blistering batting display against a formidable bowling attack.
In a short time, Holder has traveled from being the medium paced trundler that he was to becoming one of the most incisive paceman in the game. He was always diligent. But if he were previously an honest workman, sweating away with unsharpened tools, he is now a highly skilled craftsman possessing some of the best tools of the trade.
The swing and steep bounce was always there, but too often it was not allied with a compelling enough length and an effective enough off-stump line. Piecing together all the pieces of the puzzle, like Koufax did over the second part of his baseball career, has made him a much-improved bowler over the past year and a half. He is now one of the games best seam bowlers, even at the gentle pace at which he operates.
Holder’s exploits in this game have been instrumental in bringing his side to what should be a winning position. His recently acquired status as a player is bound to heighten not only his confidence, but also the respect he receives from both opponents and teammates. If the West Indies are to experience any significant rise in the Test rankings then Jason Holder, with bat and ball and as leader, has big part to play.