The year is 1976. In the fourth Test at Kingston, Jamaica, India skipper Bishen Singh Bedi declared the second innings at the score of 97 for 6 - only 12 runs ahead of the home side. The declaration was perceived as a retraction of Indian batting against West Indies’ barbaric fast bowling. Also, India did not have enough batsmen left with Anshuman Gaekwad, Gundappa Vishwanath and Brijesh Patel nursing injuries after receiving severe body blows in the first innings.
It was the first display of the brand of cricket that West Indies would play till the turn of the century. Clive Lloyd employed it in the aftermath of a calamitous tour of Australia where the Caribbean batsmen were taken aback by the sheer pace of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson. Going Down Under expecting a competitive series, West Indies were blown away 5-1. Later, conceding a target of 403 in the third Test against India at Trinidad proved to be the tipping point and Lloyd decided to build his bowling attack solely on one criteria - pace.
While Australia’s intimidation factor revolved around Lillee and Thomson, Lloyd handpicked an army of fast bowlers to bombard the opposition batsmen one after the other. In their subsequent series, West Indies thrashed England 3-0 with exponents of fast bowling like Michael Holding, Sir Andy Roberts (28 wickets each) and Wayne Daniel. By the beginning of the ‘80s, West Indies had the famous quartet - Holding, Roberts, Colin Croft and Malcolm Marshall - which terrorized batsmen all over the world.
Throughout the ‘80s, the fast bowlers pouched 1,257 wickets for West Indies and the spinners accounted for only 85 scalps. The Guyanese off-spinner and the current selector, Roger Harper picked 45 of these 85 scalps while the rest were distributed amongst part-time spinners. The numbers clearly indicate the heavy proportion in which pacers dominated.
Lloyd along with the pace quartet changed the way Test cricket was played. Never in their history did West Indies cricket invest to this extent in fast bowling and it paid rich dividends.
23.3 runs per dismissal coupled with 51.4 deliveries for each wicket in the 1980s is the best bowling average and strike-rate for the fast bowling unit of any country across a decade since the 1950s.
The ‘80s, in fact, is the only decade when West Indies won a majority of their Tests - a win percentage of 52.4. Only four other sides have emulated the feat since then. Australia thrice - 1990s, 2000s and 2010s (including 2020) - victory percentages of 50, 68.7 and 51.3 respectively and India since 2010 winning 51.3 percent of their games. However, the outcomes of all the subsequent sides mentioned here had spinners playing a big part.
Beginning his career in 1992, Shane Warne won matches for Australia till 2006. Nathan Lyon has been influential in turning matches in Australia’s favor playing 96 Tests since his debut in 2011. The role of spinners for India obviously need no special mention.
Overall, spinners picked one-third of wickets for Australia in the 1990s, 2000s and approximately 29 percent since 2010. For India, since 2010, that figure is close to 50 percent. For West Indies, in the 1980s, spinners grabbed merely seven percent of the wickets.
Post the retirement of the quartet, the baton was passed to Courtny Walsh, Sir Curtly Ambrose and Ian Bishop. Tall, bustling and equally intimidating, they continued winning matches for West Indies. The numbers stayed in good health for the West Indies’ pace bowling arsenal (as can be seen from the graph above).
However, the same intimidation factor has deserted the Caribbean pace unit since that generation passed. The dip in the quality is conspicuous in numbers. The bowling average rose to 35.2 in the 2000s which has been the worst in a decade for them.
The likes of Mervyn Dillon, Pedro Collins, Vasbert Drakes, Corey Collymore were skillful in their own way but none had the pace to keep the batsmen on the back foot. Hence, they were dependent on conditions more often. This unfortunately coincided with the period when the Caribbean pitches also began to lose fervour. The menacing fast bowlers seemed like a thing of the distant past.
The ones who had pace - Fidel Edwards, Jerome Taylor and Jermaine Lawson to name a few - were not managed properly and succumbed to injuries quite often.
For long, the injuries threatened to take their toll on Kemar Roach as well. The pacer who made his debut in 2009 was an out and out fast bowler who could clock 90mph consistently. Not many have troubled Ricky Ponting with short balls but Roach did force the then Australian skipper to retire hurt after copping a blow to the elbow. In the next innings, Ponting batted at nine and popped a simple catch to the short-leg fielder off another searing delivery from Roach. He held the potential to be a fast bowling great but injuries had other plans for him.
Things did not improve much for the West Indies’ pacers in the 2010s either. They have collectively been better than only Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka since 2010, none of which are historically known for producing great fast bowlers.
Although, things have been on an upward curve over the last couple of years and the change has come right from the administrative level. While Ottis Gibson, former West Indies player and now a coach, vouched for the use of Dukes balls in the Caribbean, the administrators too pushed for a sporting wicket to keep away with boring cricket. In 2018, the pace bowling attack spearheaded by the skipper, Jason Holder, ran through the batting line-ups of Sri Lanka and Bangladesh at home.
When England was set to tour the West Indies in 2019, Geoffrey Boycott labelled the West Indies’ side as a bunch of ‘average cricketers’. The management, including the outgoing coaches Stuart Law and Nic Pothas, wanted to revert back to Kookaburra balls on sluggish pitches to not let England feel at home. Their request fell on deaf ears and West Indies gave England a taste of their own medicine defeating them handsomely in the first two Tests to clinch the three-match series 2-1.
The West Indies' pace battery - Holder, Roach, Shannon Gabriel, Alzarri Joseph - drove the Caribbean fans into the sweet memory lanes of the ‘80s outbowling their English counterparts.
Currently, their names cannot be taken in the same breath with the greats of the ‘80s but the new quartet - Holder and Co. - have shown that in right conditions, they have the might to cause havoc. Since 2018, Holder has averaged only 14.2 runs per dismissal for his 53 wickets, the best by any bowler with a minimum of 10 Test wickets. Gabriel has snaffled 50 scalps at 24.6 apiece, Roach 46 at 19.8 and Joseph has 10 wickets in three Tests at 23.8. They also have the young sensation, Chemar Holder in their ranks.
England remains one of the tougher countries to bat against the fast bowlers. The upcoming Test series between the two countries, despite being a historic one marking the resumption of professional cricket post the COVID break, will be a contest between two pace batteries. Like it happened in 2019, the side which aces this contest could turn out to lift the trophy.