There was a time, not too long ago, when mere mentions of the terms ‘West Indies’ and ‘Test cricket’ together triggered sighs and groans from cricket fans across the world, even the traditionalists. The BCCI announced a Test series versus the Windies? ‘Ugh, not the Windies again. The ‘watching Test cricket in West Indies can help cure insomnia’ jokes were in full flow.
The disgruntlement and the disinterest were justified. Between Jan 1, 2013, and Dec 31, 2016, West Indies won just 5 of the 30 Test matches they played. Only Zimbabwe (0.166) had a worse W/L ratio than their 0.368 during the said period. There were no superstars in the side, their identity was stripped and at one point it felt like the prospect of West Indies giving up Test cricket, altogether, was a real possibility.
Not least because they were, by some distance, the best T20 side in the world. They not only had an older generation of players who leaned towards the riches of the shortest format but also, worryingly, up-and-coming young stars who had zero incentive to play the longest format. The future looked bleak; all hope seemed lost.
So how did we get where we are today, then? How did a side that only half a decade ago was considered ‘unfit’ to play Test cricket, turn into a spirited, competitive team whose matches simply cannot be missed?
The answer lies in four letters: P A C E.
Home to the greatest pacers the sport has ever witnessed, the turn of the century saw the West Indies' fast bowling ranks fall off a cliff, particularly in the longest format. The Courtney Walsh era officially ended a year into the new century and, from thereon, there was a paucity of world-class seamers in the Caribbean Islands. Indeed, there were Mervyn Dillon, Fidel Edwards, Jerome Taylor, Corey Collymore, Ravi Rampaul, and Pedro Collins - all of whom were able pacers who were devastating on their day. But ultimately they lacked the consistency to excel in the longest format.
Post Walsh, No Windies pacer averaged under 30, and between January 1, 2000, and December 31, 2010, only pacers of India (marginally), Bangladesh, and Zimbabwe boasted of a worse average than that of the Windies seamers (36.03). Even taking the cut-off as December 31, 2015, the Windies pacers’ average of 35.57 was only better than India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Zimbabwe.
Lack of potency with the ball - coupled with a batting unit that was slowly but steadily disintegrating - meant that there was no go-to mantra for the Windies to win matches; not even at home. Between Jan 2000 and Dec 2015, the Windies won just 21 of the 76 Tests they played at home; their W/L ratio at home of 0.700 was only better than Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. Teams across the world managed to rack up wins at home despite a vast majority being poor travellers but for the Windies, winning matches at home, in itself, was a mountainous task. No wonder they struggled to remain relevant in the longest format.
By 2017, though, for the first time arguably in a decade and more, West Indies finally had strength in depth in pace bowling that they were simply never accustomed to. They were not relying on white-ball specialists, nor were they banking on veterans to chip in and fill the void to complement the first-team regulars. They had a mix of youth and experience in their fast-bowling stocks, all of whom not just came through the ranks in domestic cricket, but, most importantly, desired to play long-form cricket.
Kemar Roach, nearing his 30s, had successfully undergone his ‘Anderson transformation - transitioning from a 150 clicks tearaway who wanted to bowl fast all the time to a 130-something seamer outsmarting batsmen through skills - while Jason Holder, almost half-a-decade into his international career, had matured as a bowler and grown into the role of captaincy. Shannon Gabriel brought pace and experience in abundance with him, while the aforementioned three were ably complemented by rising stars Miguel Cummins and Alzarri Joseph, both of whom were earmarked for great things. The inventory deepened and one could sense that there was potential for something worthwhile to brew.
The next logical step, then, was for Cricket West Indies (CWI) to make the fullest use of the weapons they had at their disposal; to find a way for the seamers to shine. And the board did so in 2017: having used Dukes Balls in home Tests upon the advice of ex-head coach Otis Gibson, they now took a conscious effort to make the wickets spicy and lively to complement the nature of the ball. The move would eventually prove to be a significant turning point for the Windies in Test cricket.
Though Windies played all three home Tests in 2017, the results were there for everyone to see. In the three-match Test series against Pakistan, seamers (across both sides) averaged an astonishing 21.19 (68 wickets), a figure that was, at that point in time, the lowest tally for a home season since the turn of the century. To put the number into perspective, in 2016, seamers who bowled in West Indies took just 48 wickets at 32.89 apiece.
For the first time in years, Test cricket in West Indies became ‘watchable’ again, and the climax of that three-match series - Fazeer Mohammed’s “WHY DID HE DO THAT?” comment - whet the appetite for the season to follow. Most importantly, it felt like the West Indies had found a potential formula to win matches of Test cricket at home.
After the promise of 2017, it was vitally important for the Windies to build on that start and make progress in the 2018/19 home season. They were to host Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and England, and so the responsibility was not just on the players to deliver, but also the curators, who had to alter the conditions in such a way that it played into the hands of the hosts.
They did, the curators stuck to their promise, and what followed was the greatest eight-month period for West Indies cricket since the turn of the century.
After playing out a grueling 1-1 draw versus the Lankans, the Windies handed a thrashing of a lifetime to Bangladesh. ‘An innings and 219 runs’ and ‘166 runs’ were the margins of victory against the Tigers, and the very first innings of the series saw Bangladesh get bowled out for a record-low total, 43.
The biggest takeaway from the two series, however, was how astoundingly good the Windies seamers proved to be. Each of the three wins across the five Tests was set up by the pacers who remarkably took 84 wickets @ 16.95 apiece. All of Roach, Holder, and Gabriel, quite staggeringly, averaged under 19 (!!!), with each of the three seamers also boasting a sub-35 strike rate. The ‘potential formula for success that they’d identified in 2017 against Pakistan had turned into a proven recipe.
Success against Sri Lanka and Bangladesh was promising, but the litmus test lay ahead: a three-Test series against England with the Dukes ball. Are the Windies seamers really thaaaaat good, or have they been merely aided by some sub-standard batting? That was the question posed by fans and experts alike heading into the series.
By the end of the third Test, no suspicion existed anymore. Unfathomably enough, the West Indies pacers, across the three Tests, scalped 47 wickets @ 20.48 apiece to help the side register arguably its most famous Test series win in over 20 years. England, like Bangladesh, were handed a thrashing of a lifetime, with the Three Lions being bowled out under 250 in each of the first four innings of the series, the first of which was a 77 all-out that set the tone for the rest of the series.
The batsmen piggybacked off the indomitable showing of the bowlers - something that was non-existent for decades - and a combination of the two proved too hot for England to handle. If the Windies needed vindication of their strategy - to put all their eggs in the ‘pace’ basket - these three Tests provided it.
Two years on, West Indies have religiously stuck to the same strategy and have continued to reap rewards for the same. It was telling, then, that all 20 wickets in the first Test against Pakistan in Jamaica were picked by the seamers, with the show-stealer being the latest addition to the West Indies’ fast-bowlers union: Jayden Seales. But it is worth looking at the overall impact the ‘pace revolution’ has had on West Indies in Test cricket, and how, since adopting the pace strategy, they finally have an identity and are a force to be reckoned with at home - something they never were in the first 16 years of this century.
For the first 16 years of this century, the Windies’ W/L ratio at home stood at 0.656. But since the start of 2017, this figure has risen to 0.875, finding themselves 7th among 11 teams. In fact, this figure rises to 1.000 if we move the cut-off to January 2018. From roughly winning 1 in 4 Tests in the first 16 years of this century, West Indies, since 2018, have started to win 1 in 3. This is a marked improvement for a side that only five years ago was reeling at the very bottom, with there seemingly being no light at the end of the tunnel.
And the role played by the pack of seamers - led by skipper Holder and Roach - in transforming this Windies side from ‘pushovers’ to ‘dangerous customers’, even if it's only at home, simply cannot be stated enough. They are not just the best set of fast bowlers from the Caribbean in more than 20 years, they are currently right up there as the most potent pack in the entire world.
Since the start of 2018, West Indies fast bowlers, at home, have taken 224 wickets at a mind boggling average of 21.26. Among countries to have taken a minimum of 100 wickets at home during this period (seamers), no team has bettered this tally. Not South Africa. Not Australia. Not New Zealand.
*Indian seamers have averaged 17.00 at home during this period, but they have only taken 94 wickets
Integral to this revolution has, of course, been Roach and Holder, the two pillars of this Windies Test side.
Since 2018, among bowlers to have taken a minimum of 50 wickets at home, Holder (60 wickets at 16.28) has the best average. Remarkably, just behind him in the table, placed second, is Roach, whose 66 wickets @ 18.01 have been bettered only by his compatriot. In other words, in the last three years, Holder and Roach have been more dominant in West Indies than Ravichandran Ashwin has been in India. These are numbers that highlight why we’ve been witness to a mini resurrection from the Windies in Test cricket in the past three years.
Why the Windies can sustain this potency at home
The fast-bowling boom for the Windies happened in 2017 and thus far they’ve done a laudable job in capitalizing on it. The question now, naturally, will be: can they sustain it?
If recent happenings are anything to go by, then the answer is a big, fat yes. The Windies integrated teenager Seales into the starting XI against South Africa, and he has, so far, been an instant hit: in 3 Tests the 19-year-old has claimed 13 wickets, and his modus operandi makes him devastating in home conditions, tailored to aid seam.
But Windies’ fast-bowling stocks, outside of Seales and the usual suspects, is still a handful. Waiting in the reserves are Chemar Holder - who made his Test debut last year - and left-armer Preston McSween - who was a reserve for the England Tests - both of whom have already left indelible marks in first-class cricket.
It is also worth noting that Alzarri Joseph is still only 24 and is far away from his peak, while both Holder and Roach, should nothing drastic happen, will still continue to operate as a pair for at least the next two years. While Roach, 33, has managed to find an efficient way to run his body without breaking down, Holder is getting better by the day. Thus there is a good chance that apart from tormenting sides at home for the next couple of years, the Windies could seamlessly transition on the fast-bowling front.
Full of imperfections, but making the right noises
Far too long the West Indies - a yesteryear powerhouse in the longest format - remained irrelevant and insignificant in Test cricket. Such was the stature they’d built for themselves in the whites that even when they won two T20 World Cups in the span of four years, the question was always ‘could they finally translate this success into the longest format?’. Nothing seemed to materialize then.
But things have started to change. T20 might still be the Windies’ forte, but Test cricket in the country is definitely back on the rise. Make no mistake, this is a side that is not perfect and has glaring flaws and weaknesses. Even their biggest strength, bowling, is not half as potent away from home and their numbers with the bat have been alarmingly bad, with Ireland being the only Test-playing nation to have averaged less than their 23.2 since 2018.
But this team now plays an exciting brand of cricket, fans have an emotional connect with the players and even as the freelance T20 market continues to consume players in the Caribbean, enough individuals have sincerely put their hand up with the aim of getting Test cricket in the country back to where it belongs.
When you fall from grace as hard as the Windies did, every baby step on the way back up top will inevitably be cheered. And it is precisely what the Windies have been doing over the last three years: take baby steps. Progress, regardless of how small and negligible it is, is still progress, and thus the responsibility is now on the shoulders of those running the sport in the Caribbean to ensure that the team keeps striding forward and does not go back to square one.
*All numbers in the article are as of August 19, 2021, prior to the commencement of the second Test between West Indies and Pakistan