The inescapable shadow
The tale of the West Indian team in the 1980s is one which shall live forever on in cricketing folklore. Clive Lloyd's spinners failed miserably at the Port of Spain and the subsequent change in mindset brought together, arguably, the greatest fast bowling unit the game has ever and will ever see. Batting was also no issue for the great side with the top 7 boasting some of the greatest to ever grace the 22 yards including Vivian Richards the greatest ODI batsmen of all time. The following decade of dominance was hitherto unparalleled by any side in the history of the game; no one could even lace their boots. Except there is a caveat to constructing the greatest team to ever play and it’s quite obvious. Reaching those heights ever again is just improbable. Nothing any team can ever do can ever recapture the wonder and magnificence of the side that has been as not only was it the West Indies first great side but it was also the team that created many a story. The blackwash of England, the called off game vs India, the first team to ever win a world cup and being the first team to beat Pakistan in Pakistan- these are achievements that no future team can match. Naturally the lack of footage surrounding it means that the tales have been slightly warped and are viewed through a nice pair of rose tinted glasses but ask anyone who watched them live and free flowing and they will tell you that they are simply unmatched. The men in maroon might never escape the shadow of those who have come before but in modern day the test side appears to have the foundations to begin carving out a legacy of its own; one of the sleeping giants is waking again.
The West Indies test side have had a fluctuating few years, as is common among the notionally lesser test nations, but the feeling around them after an impressive series win in Bangladesh and a sound draw on some dead wickets vs Sri Lanka is that this is the start of a new dawn. When Jason Holder took over the captaincy in 2015 West Indian cricket was at rock bottom and almost single handedly he dragged them out and along with his fast bowling contemporaries, Kemar Roach and Shannon Gabriel, he steered them back onto the right path and over the next 5 years they gained some sense of stability with some major highlights in between. Shai Hope's twin tons at Headingley will live forever on in the memories of cricket fans whilst their series win over England and Holder's double hundred is arguably the major highlight of modern West Indian cricket. However the time was right to relinquish Holder of the burden of being the skipper. It is a job that takes its toll and Holder has by all accounts been freed up by Kraigg Brathwaite taking over of the role.
Jason Holder is a fascinating cricketer who performs everything to a high standard every game. Holder doesn’t bowl a bad ball, he doesn’t drop a catch in the slips and his runs from anywhere between 6 and 8 are more than handy given they have often been preceded by a top order collapse. Holder is a world class test match bowler and all rounder and one of the great strengths of the West Indies cricket team is recognising this and building their squad around him and getting the best out of him. However by being freed of the captaincy Holder is now able to express his true self in all his glory, chirping batsmen and working people over with his effortlessly masterful control of line and length. Jason Holder is no longer the West Indies skipper but he is still their main man. In terms of competing at the highest level every team needs a genuine top standard operator delivering each week and Jason Holder can do that and will do that. Holder is 29 and the best cricketing years of his career are happening as we speak and given his repeatable bowling action (which is a masterclass in balance and elegance) we will see Jason Holder in test cricket for the next 5 years and he is the man whom the West Indies need to construct their team around.
Speaking of main men when Kraigg Brathwaite was awarded the captaincy it was initially a shock to everyone but over time it began to make more and more sense. Holder was never a brilliant captain instead he was a brilliant leader- he was more Stokes than Vaughan. West Indies cricket had built a solid foundation but now they need to take it to the next level and Jason Holder quite frankly was not the man to do that. Holder was never going to lead the West Indies to the next level because as long as he was captain he was never going to be able to perform to his peak ability. However almost as a blessing in disguise Holder missed the West Indian tour to Bangladesh and Kraigg Brathwaite was his stand-in and his on field tactics was a huge part of why the West Indies walked away with a stunning 2-0 victory. More often than not in cricket captains have little effect on a game; field placements and changing bowlers is good and all but it’s natural and most captains would implement these same tactics. Yet Brathwaite himself had a noticeable impact on the field implementing a certain swagger whilst also working out his opponents and showing an almost freakish ability to execute a plan. off the field there was a noticeable shift in attitude to a genuine never say die attitude and refusing to roll over when push comes to shove. Not only this but Brathwaite is slowly moulding into one of the side's most reliable batsmen along with Nkrumah Bonner and Kyle Mayers both of whom have played a huge part in fixing the West Indian middle order.
Before Bonner and Mayers the West Indies had tried countless players but after a poor tour of England, on the batting front, and a disaster tour of New Zealand they needed change and it arrived bright and shining. Kyle Mayers 210* on debut will go down as one of the greatest knocks ever played by a cricketer and rightfully so. It was filled with a certain level headedness whilst also retaining a fundamental belief in his methods that only the very best possess. At 28 Mayers is entering his peak as a cricketer and after 4 games and 8 innings his average of 66 isn’t an unfair reflection of his ability. Mayers story is also one for the romantic and one which a team's backstory can be built upon. Disregarded by the game, wanting to quit but turning around working his ass off getting his break off the back of extremely unfortunate circumstances and then making it count in a big way, I mean it gives you goosebumps just to read. Mayers is a man dedicated to his craft who has shown the desire and ability to better himself; tougher tests lie ahead for the number 4 but given his current track record it wouldn’t be stupid to predict he delivers in almost every condition.
Every good test side needs a dependable number 3 and sadly Shai Hope just wasn’t that but in Nkrumah Bonner the West Indies may have found their man. Bonner is solid in defense and knows his game inside and out and it shows through his superb mental application and his unrelenting run making. After 7 innings 1 ton and an average of 62.5 Bonner is seemingly here for a while and at 32 one would imagine we will see him for at least the next 3 years. What makes Bonner so useful to his side is that batting at number 3 he has faced 976 balls in 7 innings which equals out to roughly 139 balls per innings (for a bit of context Jonothan Trott averaged 112 per innings after his first 7 and 87 throughout his career Trotts where against a higher calibre of opponent but the point still stands.) Bonner is a man who has built his game around the fundamentals that are needed to succeed in red ball cricket and with players such as Brathwaite, Bonner and Mayers the West Indies stand a much better chance at occupying the crease for long periods of time and allowing their bowling unit to rest and recuperate. Bonners and Mayers are the keys in the West Indian batting unit and mark my words any success they have in the near future Bonner and Mayers will be at the centre of it.
Squad building is always fun and the best part about it is undoubtedly young players. When an exciting young player breaks through and does something remarkable it gets you out of your seat and makes you pay attention but oddly with Joshua Da Silva the discussion around him has been fairly mute. Of course there has been praise, there always will be, but the circumstances in which Da Silva has come into the side and what he has done makes for a quietly impressive resume and yet this has gone unnoticed. Da Silva came into the side against New Zealand replacing Shane Dowrich who after a torrid time as of late was dropped. Da Silva immediately impressed with both bat and gloves and made the number 7 position his own. Having your debut series in Bangladesh on spinning wickets is no easy task for a keeper but Da Silva stood up tall to the challenge and met it head on. However impressive as his keeping may be, Da Silva's batting is where he truly stands out. Almost the polar opposite of Dowrich who was keeper first batsmen second (he has scored a ton from number 8), Da Silva possesses a technique and mentality meaning he can bat anywhere in the top 7. If the West Indies can find another keeper but not another opener it is not unthinkable to imagine Da Silva opening the batting in a few months time. Da Silva is a top batsmen who at 22 only has improvement to come and in terms of building a team to consistently compete Da Silva is one of the players the West Indies need to treasure and nurture as the young Trinidadian truly can go places and can be a fundamental part of West Indies cricket in the modern era.
Writing about the West Indies but not writing about Rahkeem Cornwall is a crime so heinous I simply couldn't bring myself to do it. Rahkeem has become a cult figure in the cricketing community with everyone loving watching him bat, bowl and field. A man with a genuinely outstanding resume at FC level (327 wickets @ 24.6 whilst only going at 2.83 and over) Cornwalls almost immediate success at test level (31 wickets @ 34.6) should be no real surprise. Cornwall is a top class spinner and is hitting the age in which spinners truly mature and come into their own. The average is inflated by playing on some fairly flat West Indian tracks but in Bangladesh Cornwall showed his true threat claiming 14 wickets @ 26.71 and in turn he cemented his place in the West Indies side once and for all. Sometimes we cannot look past the photo of Rahkeem downing a pint and see the fact that this guy is actually a bloody good spinner. Cornwall at number 8 is something I personally expect to see a lot of over the coming years.
However there is a worry for the West Indies on the bowling side. Whilst Rahkeem Cornwall has nailed down the spinners spot, with his runs at number 8 also doing him no harm, the seamers are ageing. For years the West Indies have had the security of having a 3 prong seam attack good enough to take 20 wickets against anyone but now Shannon Gabriel (33) and Kemar Roach (32) are both past their prime age as bowlers you would expect to see a downturn in output. Then we are left looking for other options. Alzarri Joseph has had an ok test career without warranting any special praise and is kept about largely through being the best of a bad bunch and the knowledge that he can produce a snorter any ball. However a test match attax spearheaded by Joseph is not one that strikes fear into the eyes of many. Chemar Holder is a good young option who has a hint of something different to him and with an impressive FC record (78 wickets @ 25 but a truly astounding SR of 42) he is someone who the West Indies need to utilise soon. What has almost always been the great strength of the West Indies test side is slowly becoming a worry and without a solution the progress they are making could be halted sooner rather than later.
This coming summer presents the new look West Indies their toughest challenge yet as they face off against the Proteas and Pakistan in a 2 test match series each. All three of these nations are in the same state of rebuilding from a lost generation but none have been doing it longer than the West Indies. In each of these series the likes of Bonner, Mayers and Da Silva will have a new competition facing some truly world class attacks whilst the somewhat weaker batting lineups on the respective sides present an opportunity for the West Indies to look at their new crop of seam bowlers. West Indies cricket may never be settled and it may never escape the shadow of what has been but the side we are seeing constructed before us is one which may well surprise us. The parts are there now they just need to fine tune them and have them working in harmony and well they may just surprise a few.