George Dobell in Antigua
It was probably fitting that the series should be clinched with a six.
It was probably reflective of the balance of power that John Campbell, playing his second Test, should thrash a delivery from James Anderson, playing his 147th, over wide mid-on to wrap up a three-day victory. It underlined the dominance of West Indies and illustrated the confidence they have in their themselves. It was the young and strong mauling the ageing and decaying.
It’s taken seven days to settle this series. One week to prick the bubble of this ‘new’ England and the silly talk of ‘total cricket’. One week to revive hopes in the Caribbean game.
If you’re wondering how significant the result is, consider this: West Indies have not won a Test series against a side other than Zimbabwe or Bangladesh since 2012, when they beat New Zealand. Before that, you have to go back to 2009 (England) and then 2003 (Sri Lanka) for series victories against other teams. Make no mistake, this is significant.
And it was crushing. To win the first Test by 381 runs and the second by 10 wickets (the first time West Indies have beaten England by such a margin since 1988; beyond the life-time of many of this team) tells a story of dominance that revives memories of the good old days in Caribbean cricket. Days when their fast bowlers terrorised the opposition and their batsmen kept them in the field for session after session.
Finishing the game in such style might encourage some to believe this series has been won by what has sometimes been referred to in ‘calypso cricket’ style. But that’s pretty much always been an inappropriate – and somewhat patronising – description. It failed to reflect the hard work, the rigour, the skill that complemented the natural talent that those teams of the 1970s and 80s, in particular, possessed in abundance.
It’s been the same in this series. West Indies have out-thought and out-battled England as much as they out-played them. They read conditions better, they picked more appropriate sides, they bowled better lines and lengths and they showed greater discipline with bat and ball.
But the most obvious difference between the sides came in the make-up of the bowling attacks. At least on these wickets, with a bit of carry, a bit of lift and a bit of variable bounce, the extra height and speed of the West Indies’ seamers was crucial. While England did not always offer especially sturdy resistance, this is an attack that, on these wickets, will worry any opposition. And yes, that includes India, who visit the region after the World Cup.
That four-pronged attack rarely offered any respite for England. So while Sam Curran (3.83 runs per over), Moeen Ali (3.49) and Adil Rashid (4.50) let pressure off the West Indies batsmen, England’s had no relief with Shannon Gabriel (who regularly bowled above 92 mph), Kemar Roach (who offers skiddy swing), Jason Holder (who offers control and movement from a great height) conceding under three-an-over and Alzarri Joseph and Roston Chase claiming a wicket every 28.50 and 22.20 deliveries respectively. Joseph is already sharp, accurate and skilful. Aged 22, the best should be ahead of him.
Consider the batting of Kraigg Brathwaite and Darren Bravo in Antigua, too. They faced a combined total of 372 balls for their 99 runs, negating an England opening pair with over 1,000 Test wickets between them and a spiteful surface in the process. They fought and ground their way to a position in which their side was in control of the game. It was brutal hard work that involved, in Bravo’s case at least, a couple of thumping blows to the hands and body. But, such was the desire for victory, they stuck it out. Often, it seemed West Indies wanted to win more than England.
That was a point made afterwards by Holder.
“We’re hungry for success,” he said. “We made England toil in the field and it’s really admirable to see our batters stick it out. It was a tough wicket, with some variable bounce and it wasn’t easy. The way the guys showed character was remarkable; probably a turning point in the game.
“I go back to the first day of the series when I won the toss and elected to bat in Barbados. The openers really dug in. Their judgement in which balls to leave was exceptional. Kraigg and John got us three consecutive 50-run partnerships and would have probably got a fourth [if England had set a larger target]. They really set the tone and got us through some tough periods.”
And then there’s Holder himself. When he was made captain, there were fears that he may – like Darren Sammy – not be quite up to the standard required as a player. But, over the last few years, he has developed into a bowler good enough to break into Test cricket’s top 10 rankings and a batsman good enough to make a double-century. While England are overflowing with all-rounders, they still couldn’t balance their side; with Holder in place, West Indies had depth with bat and ball. In this series, he’s averaged more with the bat than Joe Root (than any England player, to be fair) and less with the ball than James Anderson.
But perhaps his greatest contribution has been as captain. Maybe no job in sport requires as much diplomacy as that of captain of the not-always-so-united nations that make up the West Indies side. But, though patience and persistence and personal charm, Holder is coming to the stage where he has most of his best players available to him (Bravo was a key piece in that jigsaw), where they have shared goals and values and spirit. West Indies have never lacked talent, but it’s not always been pulling in the same direction. It appears it is right now.
There should be a word of praise for some (certainly not all) of the administrators, too. The previous coaching regime – logically enough – reasoned that West Indies’ best hope in this series would come in playing on low, slow surfaces – Guyana was one that was mentioned – and with a Kookaburra ball which, no doubt, would have provided far less assistance to the seamers. But Cricket West Indies’ CEO, Johnny Grave, insisted on quicker wickets and a more helpful Dukes ball in the belief it would create more attractive cricket and play to his own side’s strengths.
It was a masterstroke. This has been a wonderfully entertaining series whereas, not so long ago, encounters between these sides were mind-numbingly attritional. It will take time to win back the spectators that have been lost to these grounds but, if the team plays like this, it could be done. In barbers and bars, cricket is still a primary topic of discussion. The love is still there. It just needs a bit more wooing.
Meanwhile the professional base of the game has increased – there are roughly 120 professional players in the Caribbean now – which should increase the depth of talent in the region, and there are more first-class games being played. You still wonder how a board can ignore their director of cricket’s recommendations for an interim coach and whether, in other circumstances, this batting order might not prove a bit brittle – it’s only a few weeks since they lost to Bangladesh, after all – but this is a side that has made substantial progress in recent times. There’s been nothing lucky about their success.
So, how far can this team go?
“We want to be No. 1,” said Holder. “And I think we’ve got what it takes to be No. 1. We’re still a long way off but, as the guys mature and develop, we’ll definitely be the No. 1 side in years to come. I don’t think any teams plays to be No. 2 or 3.
“It’s just a case of us stringing it together a bit more often collectively. In the past we’ve not hung in as batters or we’ve bowled one or two good spells up front but not been able to follow it up because we’ve strayed from our game plans. We’ve shown in these last two games how we can get it together.”
They sure have. And, you suspect, given their history, this is a success that will be celebrated – even, to an extent, by England supporters – wherever in the world anyone loves cricket. These former Test giants have been absent too long; it is good to have them back.