The Wisden Trophy and promise of a brighter future

Watching Cricket

with Garfield Myers

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

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Back in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, West Indies beat England so often and held on to the prized Wisden Trophy for so long, it became almost boring.

The trophy was inaugurated in 1963 when Frank Worrell's West Indies toured England, then led by the dashing stroke player Ted Dexter, 'Lord Ted'.

John Wisden & Co, publishers of the famous Wisden Cricketers' Almanac, the 'Bible of cricket', offered the trophy to be played for between England and West Indies in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the annual publication.

West Indies convincingly won that first Wisden Trophy series and again in 1966, before England grabbed hold of it in 1968, thanks to an extraordinarily ill-judged declaration by West Indies captain Garfield Sobers in Trinidad.

Five years later, against the odds, Rohan Kanhai's West Indies, playing highly efficient cricket, dispatched England on tour of that country, to regain the trophy.

Surely no one would have expected that it would have taken the English 27 years to regain The Wisden Trophy. But that's what happened. As it turned out, the 1970s was the dawning of Clive Lloyd's legendary team, arguably the strongest in the history of the glorious game.

In 2000, when James Adams's men toured England, it was clear that West Indies were now in rapid decline. Yet, Adams and his men won the first Test by an innings.

But England rebounded to win the series 3-1 as their fast bowlers Darren Gough, Andy Caddick, and Dominic Cork came to the fore.

West Indies were crushed 4-0 by fast bowler Steve Harmison and company on tour of the Caribbean in 2004, leaving some home fans to think their team would never again lay hands on The Wisden Trophy. Those who witnessed it won't forget the utter despair as Harmison routed West Indies for 47 at Sabina Park.

When in 2009 Chris Gayle's team recaptured the trophy it came as a shock. Again, those of us who were there will long remember the brilliance of Jerome Taylor superbly backed up by Sulieman Benn, as England were dismantled for 51 at Sabina Park.

Sadly, West Indies would tamely give up their hold on The Wisden Trophy within a few months as administrators as well as players accepted an invitation from the English to play a two-Test series in England in the cold and damp of May. Of course, they lost both Tests.

It's a memory which still makes me angry, especially since two months later Gayle and other senior players would go on strike for the Bangladesh tour of the Caribbean, allowing the youthful visitors to sweep hastily patched together West Indies teams in Tests and ODIs.

Fast-forward to now: Joe Root's England came to the West Indies last month as howling favourites to retain The Wisden Trophy they had held unbroken for close to 10 years. For many people in England as well as the West Indies, the Caribbean side's 2-1 triumph has been a shock of almost unprecedented proportions.

England's favourites' tag was understandable since they had beaten India 4-1 in England in the summer of last year and then hammered Sri Lanka 3-0 in that country just recently. While England were humbling Sri Lanka, West Indies were losing four away Tests in a row, 0-2 in India and 0-2 in Bangladesh. The Bangladesh experience was particularly humiliating — a massive innings defeat in the second Test described as a new low for the Caribbean team.

Yet there were those of us who recognised mitigating circumstances surrounding the West Indies tour of Asia. The decision by coach Stuart Law to walk away from West Indies cricket — announced just before the start of the tour — must have been unsettling for the players. Then Jason Holder ended up playing just one Test in India — we are told this was because of an ankle injury. And in Bangladesh, the West Indies captain missed the entire tour because of his troublesome shoulder.

To make matters worse, the classy seamer Kemar Roach missed the two Tests in India after his grandmother died. He returned to the tour in time for the second Test but shockingly was not selected. And in Bangladesh, Shannon Gabriel shouldered aside an opponent and got banned for the second Test.

Something else some of us considered was that despite a rash of wicket-taking no-balls and dropped catches, West Indies played good cricket last year during the Sandals Home Series, drawing 1-1 with Sri Lanka and beating Bangladesh 2-0. Engrossed by the Fifa World Cup, most people wouldn't have noticed but Holder and Gabriel enjoyed considerable success as medium pacer and fast bowler, respectively, against the visiting Asians, showing marked improvement in skill levels.

Another thing which should have been considered but which many chose to ignore is that the core of this team under Holder's leadership has been growing up together since age-group cricket. Of the group which wrested The Wisden Trophy from England — Roach, Darren Bravo and Gabriel are 30 years-old. The rest are 27 and younger.

Though they played badly in New Zealand a year ago, Holder and his men had shown steady improvement since 2016. In the United Arab Emirates and at home against Pakistan, West Indies won two of six Tests, losing both series 1-2. Then they beat England at Leeds in 2017 — losing the series 1-2, and beat lowly Zimbabwe in that country.

It's against that backdrop that I felt West Indies had a decent chance to conquer England in Caribbean conditions. It helped that the home side opted for pacy, bouncy pitches and threw responsibility to their fast bowlers — reverting to a four-man pace attack. I thought the decision by the West Indies selectors last year to include Devendra Bishoo at the expense of an additional fast bowler on grassy pitches which did not suit the leg spinner, was plain ludicrous.

It also helped that confused English tour selectors left out the tall, experienced pace man Stuart Broad from the first Test in Barbados. Influenced, no doubt, by his success on turning pitches in Sri Lanka, the tourists also chose the leg spinner Adil Rashid in Barbados. It soon became clear that was a terrible error.

For the second Test in Antigua, the English selected Broad, but again showed diffidence, leaving out Mark Wood, the man with the reputation as their fastest bowler. They again ended up losing by a wide margin.

After winning the final, so-called 'dead rubber' Test in St Lucia, the English said they finally got their selections right, especially given the performance of Wood, the man of the match, who bowled with express pace and aggression.

However, the thought not far away will be about the difference Holder could have made, had he played. Readers will recall that the West Indies captain was banned from playing that final Test because of slow overrate in Antigua.

Make no mistake about it, Holder, who was thrown into the deep end as West Indies captain at age 23, has shown himself to be an inspirational leader. Somehow, his considerable inner strength has allowed him to tug his men away from dwelling on poisonous off-field issues so prevalent in West Indies cricket, to focus on improving as individuals and as a collective. He told his players to concentrate on the “process” and the positive results would come. In that respect, he apparently took on board the advice of former South African captain Graeme Smith who took the mantle of leadership at 22. Smith famously told Holder to ignore the politics of West Indies cricket and simply focus on cricket.

Even as Holder has led with wisdom and strength, his individual game as batsman and bowler has prospered — rewarded by his current ranking as the world's top Test-match all rounder. It is testament to Holder's strength of character and self-belief that at age-group level he ignored advice from highly respected people, who suggested he pay less attention to his batting and concentrate more on bowling fast.

I have no doubt at all in my mind, that Holder — mentally strong, highly talented and very determined — would have made a huge difference as captain and player had he played that final Test.

Another who has shown wonderful improvement under extreme pressure is the wicketkeeper/batsman Shane Dowrich. Readers will recall that amid all the off-field controversies, Dowrich replaced the former West Indies captain and top wicketkeeper in the region, Denesh Ramdin, in 2016 against powerful India.

There was never any doubt about Dowrich's ability as a batsman. The fear was that the pressure of being asked to replace the accomplished Ramdin as wicketkeeper would prove too much. For a while he seemed likely to buckle. Then inner strength asserted itself, and today Dowrich the 'keeper, looks as safe as any, especially to fast bowling. As to his batting, he has now scored three Test centuries in the last 15 months.

Today, batting remains the major weakness in this West Indies team, which has had to rely repeatedly on Dowrich, Holder, and the lower order to repair early damage. While he has done well just recently in 50-over cricket, Shai Hope needs to recapture the Test-match form which gained him twin centuries against England at Leeds. One feels he will need to do well against India in the Caribbean later this year.

It seems to me that the selectors should consider removing the burden of vice captaincy from opener Kraigg Brathwaite. It can't be just coincidence that as leader in Holder's absence, his batting has been way below par and that West Indies lost all of those games.

The highly talented Shimron Hetmyer's biggest challenge is probably to keep his ego under control. Against Wood in the first innings of the final Test, Hetmyer — like Hope before him — seemed intent on beating the ball after being surprised by the Englishman's pace. Both paid the price for reckless play when the waiting game was what was needed.

In the second innings, Hetmyer was batting beautifully before running himself out, attempting a third run on a throw from well inside the boundary. Again, ego was the culprit.

Roston Chase's superb unbeaten century in the third Test, his fifth in three years of Test match cricket, allowed his team to end on a high despite that final defeat. For Chase it was particularly satisfying, since his first innings dismissal fending a short, rising ball from Wood to slip appeared to confirm talk that pace is his Achilles heel. In that second innings century he was wonderfully controlled, competently dealing with Wood and company.

Bravo's courageous stand on a treacherous pitch in Antigua went a long way to ensuring the West Indies second Test win, to clinch The Wisden Trophy. It was his only notable contribution of the series after his long break — caused by the 'Big Idiot' controversy — but I am not worried. I am backing Bravo to do well against India later this year, preferably at number five in the batting order.

As to the 25 year-old John Campbell, there can be no underestimating his contribution as opener, replacing Kieran Powell. Revival of his age-group partnership with Brathwaite provided solidity at the top of the order. Campbell's only failure came in the second innings of the final Test when he launched a huge drive at his first ball from James Anderson. Yes, ego, yet again.

Though not making 50 in his debut Test series, Campbell averaged 35 and his “fearless” approach has now earned him a place in the West Indies ODI squad following injury to Evin Lewis. But Campbell must recognise that he has to spend much more time at the crease and make big runs.

Such was the success of the fast bowlers, man-of-the-series Roach, Gabriel, Holder, Alzarri Joseph and Keemo Paul — the latter replacing Holder in the second Test only to break down midway — that it is difficult to cast blame. Yet, I thought they weren't focused and disciplined enough in that final Test. It's true they suffered from spilled chances, but so did England's bowlers.

So now all attention turns to shorter format cricket against England starting today, all in preparation for the ICC World Cup to come in England in May/June. This ODI series against England shouldn't be primarily about match results. Instead, we should be keenly watching individual performances with a view to the World Cup squad.

Chris Gayle has said he will retire from ODI cricket after the World Cup. But here's the nagging thought: At age almost 40, is he still good enough? Let's see.

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