West Indies' historic series win against Joe Root's England was outstanding for a number of reasons. The series started with the No. 3 team arriving to play the No. 8. Yet West Indies won the series convincingly after dominant victories in the first two Tests. Jason Holder's men now stand on the verge of a unexpected 'blackwash' as the two teams meet in the final Test of the series in St Lucia starting Saturday.
After a couple of decades of struggle, West Indies' Test cricket seems to be gradually regaining its footing. How has this transformation taken place? Here are some of the people and factors that have helped West Indies gradually string together consistent performances.
Holder: Leading by example, leading by character
Jason's performance in the first Test in Barbados, where he scored a double-century coming at No. 8, was almost otherworldly. To make such a significant score given the situation of the West Indies innings, and from his position in the batting order was sublime.
To win that first Test by 381 runs was brilliant given that England had come into this series on the back of a successful trip to Sri Lanka, preceded by an impressive summer where they had beaten India 4-1 at home. Also, do remember, West Indies did not exactly have a good 2018: they lost in India and Bangladesh in away series; and, while they did win at home against Bangladesh, they drew with Sri Lanka.
That the team managed to keep its head high was partly because of the belief and commitment of their captain. I had the great opportunity to speak to Jason after the second Test in Antigua. He spoke passionately about the importance of gleaning information from former greats like Desmond Haynes and Brian Lara and a couple of other prominent names. Jason is tall in stature, but he is such a level-headed guy. During the 2018 CPL, I recall former Australia player Mel Jones asking Jason whether he believes in fighting "fire with fire" to motivate his players. Jason calmly responded: "No, I fight fire with water".
That sums up Jason's man-management skills, which are quite impressive. Tactically Jason is still developing and will only get better. These qualities have helped Jason to keep the Test group intact. Jason has exuded integrity and to me when a leader has that characteristic, it is easy to follow him. Jason is able to speak to his players with a level-headedness where he is not too high after a win and he is not too low after a loss. Of course Jason gets excited, but he does not go overboard. Players see that and it helps to win their trust.
And he has worked hard to earn that trust. The transformation for him happened during the Sharjah Test against Pakistan, in October 2016. In that Test, which was the final match of the series, Jason got a five-for. Since then, in 18 Tests, he has taken 67 wickets at an average of 20.35 with five five-wicket hauls.
Before that tour the chairman of selectors had publicly challenged Jason to raise the level of his game and leadership. It was essentially putting the Windies captain on notice. Prior to that, he had played 19 Tests and taken 26 wickets at 46. When you peruse his numbers now with both ball and bat, it is clear that Jason is leading by example and leading with character.
Fast men up their skillsets
It is perhaps a touch early to compare Jason to Clive Lloyd, the former West Indies captain who transformed the team's cricket, and probably world cricket, with his introduction and leadership of their great fast-bowling quartets of the late 1970s and 80s. But there is a similarity, in that Jason's influence, in tandem with his personal success, seems to have had a positive impact on the fast-bowling group, especially the pair of Shannon Gabriel and Kemar Roach.
Since that 2016 tour to the UAE, Gabriel has amassed 86 wickets at 25.51. Before that tour his numbers were a less impressive 39 wickets at 38.74.
"The pace bowlers have upped their skill levels. As a group they are far more developed than they were a couple of years ago"
Roach came back into the team for the 2017 tour of the UK. He'd been down with injury and form for a while since the previous Australian tour, and was out of the team while undergoing rehabilitation. But since that England tour Roach has proved that his rehab is complete. Bowling at reduced pace, he has been phenomenal: 57 wickets in 15 Tests at 21.36. He is no longer the young tearaway quick of his youth, but he has been consistently gathering wickets through craft, skill and no little guile.
There's been a fair amount of conversation about the advantageous height of the current Windies fast bowlers in this series. I understand very well the added advantage of tall quick bowlers. But what people are overlooking is that these same bowlers - Roach, Gabriel, Alzarri Joseph and Jason - have played against England several times in the past with limited outcomes. But given the Windies have won the series this time round, extra focus has been on their height advantage.
These bowlers haven't grown any more in height, to my knowledge, since those previous encounters - not least Roach, who cannot in any way be considered a tall man, rather a fast bowler of average height at best. What has happened is that these bowlers have upped their skill levels. As a group they are far more developed than they were a couple of years ago.
As an example, note how many left-handed batsmen have succumbed to Roach in particular, and to a lesser extent Gabriel and Holder, bowling round the wicket. Roach has reinforced that angle of attack used with good effect previously by bowlers like Andrew Flintoff and Glenn McGrath. Roach and Gabriel are not shy to start off their spells from round the wicket even if it is the first over of the match to a left-handed opening batsman. Roach has moulded himself into an excellent line bowler, and when there is something in the pitch he gets the ball darting around. He just understands his bowling so much better now.
Gabriel had learned how to shift through gears in his bowling during various passages of play. He has become more accurate and is learning now to channel his aggression and use his raw pace to greater effect. Gabriel has worked assiduously on his fitness levels, and on fine-tuning his grip and seam position to try to add lateral movement to his natural asset of pace. It is not something that has happened overnight.
He has learned more by seeking information and by talking to various people about bowling. He has made every effort to understand more about when and how to bowl defensive and attacking spells to get batsmen out. It is an ongoing work on becoming a more complete bowler. He may never be the complete package, but he must continue striving to understand what are his strengths and adding to them.
He does not have the more streamlined athleticism and technique of Roach, Joseph or Holder, who are going to swing the ball and put the ball on a dime for long periods. But Gabriel has something the others can't buy: frightening, blistering pace.
Pitches and Dukes ball
What has also helped this seam-bowling group immensely is the transformation of the pitches in the Caribbean combined with the use of the Dukes ball. The Dukes was reintroduced to first-class cricket in the Caribbean about six or seven years ago. That move was carried out at the suggestion of the cricket operations team, which stressed the importance of the proud seam that could help keep the fast bowlers' spirits strong and aid wicket-taking potency, which was not maximised previously using the Kookaburra ball.
Of the two components mentioned above, I think the biggest benefit for the fast bowlers comes from the pitches that have started favouring the fast men in the past year or so, not long after Stuart Law became the coach. Law emphasised the need for more grassy pitches so West Indies could play to their strengths. We have seen the benefit of that recently against Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and now against England, where the pitches have encouraged fast bowling. (Though my caveat is that I prefer that the bounce in some venues be more consistent). The results are there to be seen: since that Sharjah Test, West Indies have won nine out of 22 Test matches and drawn two, with their fast-bowling group being the main catalyst.
The grass-covered pitches have obviously aided the fast bowlers in moving the ball laterally at pace with bounce. It has provided them with a vehicle to improve their penetration as a bowling group, as their strike rate of 38.7 in 10 home Tests since Sharjah indicates when compared to their away strike rates (64.4 in 12 Tests).
Selectors retain the nucleus of young players
The other significant factor in West Indies' recent success has been the consistency in selections. Since Jason took over the leadership, 27 players have played for the team. It indicates that the selection panel has believed in a set strategy and adhered to that by showing a certain amount of trust and consistency in the selections. This has not always been to universal approval.
"Joseph lost his mother hours before play and yet he performed impressively. That says something about him and his character"
You look at the core group: Jason, Kraigg Brathwaite, Roston Chase, Shai Hope, Shane Dowrich. They all are around the same age, they all came through the same system together - from youth cricket, through the academy or the High Performance Centre. And they all had their ups and downs. But the selectors have shown some trust and some faith to keep them together when, at times, performance didn't live up to what had been expected. For example, when Shai had a long run of low scores, which he still has to get better at in Test cricket. Or when Chase and Dowrich had lean periods in 2017.
They have shown faith in Gabriel in allowing him a few years to develop through his injuries and no-ball issues. They have backed Roach when some people doubted he would be back after picking up injuries at different periods, not least in 2016. The selectors have kept the nucleus together, guys who know and understand each other. So I think the selectors need to be given some credit.
Fast-tracking Under 19s
Joseph made headlines after playing a big hand in West Indies' victory in Antigua despite having lost his mother during the Test match. It was an emotional moment no doubt for the young man. Yet, there were raised eyebrows when he was being fast-tracked into the West Indies set-up after his impressive performances at the Under-19 World Cup in 2016, where he got 13 wickets in six matches.
I remember back then there was a polarisation of thought with regards to when Alzarri should graduate to the Test squad. I for one felt that as soon as the Under-19 World Cup was over he should be around the squad, not necessarily in the final XI. However, he would go on to make his Test debut against India soon after. Gradually, Alzarri has improved in his control, and with his ability to bowl in pressure situations. You could see that in the home series against Pakistan in 2017 and then against England this series, when he lost his mother hours before day three began and yet he performed impressively. It says something about him and his character.
Shimron Hetmyer is another youngster who is showing character. After that Under-19 World Cup in 2016 I felt he might have had to play another year-and-a-half in domestic cricket to fine tune his natural attacking instincts before he got promoted. But the selectors blooded him against Pakistan. There have been a few struggles along the way, but we are starting to see the benefits of those selections in bringing these youngsters into the Test set-up. I believe that they will succeed in all formats as they gain experience. Of course, victories like these will only make them much stronger, evolve better.