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Signs of promise boost West Indies

West Indies won the final Test with aggressive bowling, a performance which warmed their fans in Barbados

The lasting sense of West Indies holding bragging rights, when Jermaine Blackwood stepped down the track and lofted offspinner Moeen Ali over mid-on to take a morale-boosting victory in Barbados, conveys only part of the story. When Clive Lloyd had spoken, before the World Cup, about his aims as a chief selector, that, “we want people to go out there now and think ‘Hey, we want to get up that ladder,’” West Indies were dull in the field and in disarray off it. Problems aren’t solved in a day, and the gulf between this side and England, albeit arriving to their shores under pressure, showed. In Test cricket, there are recourses to safety even if the other team is clearly better than you, and despite shortage of proven quality, West Indies showed resolve and intent. The clinching factor, which allowed them a series-levelling win, was their bowling.

Jerome Taylor helped them get early breakthroughs. His strike-rate has been the best among all bowlers, on either side, in the series, at 34.7, and his average is marginally behind man-of-the-series James Anderson (18), at 18.27. The first two days of the series, in Antigua, had England starting their batting badly, as Taylor ran in to start a mini-slide each time, with fast-bowling partner Kemar Roach joining in. They lost the first three wickets and the last five relatively quickly – for 34 and 58 respectively – but were propped up by Joe Root, Ian Bell and Ben Stokes, who scored more than 300 between them. In the second innings, the early dent was created, as the score of 52 for 3 suggests, but Taylor and the rest couldn’t impact the middle and lower order. Dominated, West Indies were able to prevent defeat only through Jason Holder, who scored an impressive century, and captain Denesh Ramdin. The joy in the stands after Holder’s effort, and the home team’s safety looked like a high, but it camouflaged the obvious inadequacies in batting and bowling.

All the bowlers, including Taylor and Roach, after their initial burst, looked flat, but left-arm spinner Suleiman Benn looked particularly so. On a track deemed to help spin bowling, he was clearly outshone by his English counterpart James Tredwell. Roach lost his effectiveness in the second innings, giving away runs at 3.78 per over, with the only wicket coming off an attempted slog. Similarly Holder, going at 3.70, was lacklustre, too. His batting performance overshadowed the problems in his bowling.

And his situation didn’t improve in the second Test in Grenada, as he finished without a wicket. Benn’s omission from the side wasn’t a surprise, but Taylor’s absence due to a shoulder strain significantly weakened their attack. England, for the first time, avoided early loss of openers and slowly piled on 100 by the third morning, which signalled an alarm as they were facing only a middling total of 299 made by their opponents. Devendra Bishoo, Benn’s replacement, got the first breakthrough, and added two middle-order wickets in his tally. Solid stands for the fourth, eighth and the tenth wickets, besides the first, took them to 464. Two days later, the target of 144 wasn’t challenging; yes, Anderson had facilitated a match-winning collapse on the final morning, but it was an exceptional performance, the one phase that clinched the game for England, and didn’t change the nature of the placid track. The foundation was laid by good bowling in flat conditions, something West Indies weren’t able to do. George Dobell, writing on Anderson in Cricinfo, had changed his opinion in two days, from ‘on the first day, Anderson ran in like a stiff old man’, and ‘it might be fair to say they (leaders of the English attack) have become rather too comfortable’ to ‘to coax any life from the surface as James Anderson did on day five is admirable.’

By this phase in the series, the ordinariness of the West Indian bowlers, other than Taylor, was evident. Both Tests had been played in tracks favouring batting. But their figures suggested a lack of creativity. Benn had conceded 200 runs for two wickets; Roach took five wickets but conceded 265 runs at 53, with a strike-rate of 93.6; Holder took only three wickets – all in the first Test – for 200; and Bishoo did only slightly better than Benn, with four wickets for 209. Shannon Gabriel, so far having played only in Grenada, took 3 for 87 at 29. On the other hand, Anderson, Broad, Tredwell – who possessed the best economy of 2.12 in 66 overs – and Ali had so far averaged 22.90, 32.50, 28, and 24.5 per wicket.

Ramdin, facing a series loss in Barbados, stressed on the intent to be aggressive in all departments of the game. His bowling certainly took the cue. Bolstered by Taylor’s return, they made England’s top order jittery again. A collective bowling effort disallowed the batsmen to take the game away from them, and only the fifth wicket stand – of 98 – stemmed the slide for a bit, on the first day. Holder brought upon his best work of the series with the initial wickets, the spinners worked their way through the middle order, and Taylor bowled with menace on the second morning to claim the last three wickets – dismissing No. 10 Broad and No. 11 Anderson off consecutive deliveries, getting them bowled.

And when the team was in trouble, having conceded a 68-run lead, the bowlers stepped up a notch higher, surprising and shocking England. Curtly Ambrose had said, in a chat with David Gower ahead of the third and final day, ‘They certainly don’t have a problem with ability. They’ve got that. If anything, they get a bit impatient sometimes. This is Test cricket. It’s about patience and discipline.’ This, the bowlers definitely showed, and these other attributes – resilience and focus.

Taylor and Gabriel ran in with aggression. Jonathan Trott avoided the fourth duck of his comeback series, but only with a knock of nine runs, and was removed by a pacy delivery, full and straight, which came into him to strike his pads when he looked to be shaping to play the outswinger. Bell, too, was done in by a similar one from Taylor. On the other end, Gabriel was probing around off stump, for a while bowling consistently above 90 miles per hour. Left-arm spinner Veerasammy Permaul added guile to add a different kind of examination of the batsmen, and the unified attack soon reduced England to 39 for 5. Although wickets didn’t fall in such hurry next morning, Permaul made sure the noose wasn’t loosened, with his accuracy, and change in flight and speed. He took the crucial wicket of Gary Ballance, first up, when the batsman got an outside edge to slip trying to defend. He also forced a mistake off Stokes, who ran down the wicket to hit him over extra cover, only sending a low catch to Shivnarine Chanderpaul. Holder and Taylor then wrapped up the innings pretty quickly, completing a teamwork that had these two faster men and Permaul taking three wickets each.

It gave the chance for the batsmen to redeem themselves. Chasing 192, there were a few scares along the way, but they calmly crossed the line. Bravo, who had increasingly frustrated with his typical pokes outside off stump while being stuck at the crease, to waste countless starts, one of which prompted Jeffrey Dujon to remark that he was ‘caught between the devil and the deep blue sea’, was the facilitator this time. He blocked and left a lot of deliveries, but didn’t allow pressure to build. He steered the chase with Blackwood, the most prolific West Indian batsman in the series, to take the runs as they came and reach the target without much drama.

The duo did something the lack of which had hurt their team thus far – build a partnership. From the start of the series, they had at least one top-order batsman who would score a hundred or get a decent score, but almost no one else would stick around. Their first innings of 295, in the first Test, was built around Blackwood’s century, but there was only one fifty-plus stand in the entire innings. On the final day of that Test, too, they lost wickets without much resistance, until Ramdin, and more prominently, Holder, took matters into their hands, and built a solid fortress for their safety. This innings, too, lacked any fifty-plus partnership besides for the second (Darren Bravo and Devon Smith), the sixth and seventh wickets, featuring these players –the Test captain and the one-day captain.

Winning the toss on a flat pitch in Grenada was an opportunity to dominate. But excepting Samuels, who scored a century, no one went on to make a big score. There were lots of starts, though, with six batsmen scoring in the range 20 – 35. If even two of these batsmen had built on these foundations, the home side wouldn’t have found themselves helpless to avoid defeat.

Fourth day of that Test, however, had looked different. Brathwaite and Bravo enjoyed staying in the crease, and took their side to a commanding 202 for 2. This was a nice prelude to the final day, acting as a statement of their solidity, but also giving themselves a boost to avoid giving their opponents a sniff on the final day. It brought upon criticism by Dobell, on Cricinfo, for England’s bowling attack. But the second new ball turned the tables, as Anderson shed off any staleness and attacked. He forced edges from Chanderpaul and Samuels, and surprised Brathwaite, resuming after a century, with a short ball. The middle and lower order followed their example and collapsed. When commentators talk about one session being capable of costing a Test, they talk about poor ones like these – the loss of seven wickets for 83 runs, and with it, the chance to save the game.

At this point, four centuries and three fifties had been scored for West Indies, as against three centuries and nine fifties for England – showing the gulf between the effectiveness of the two batting orders. Bravo, especially, was a disappointment, as he has shown intermittently his ability to face the best attacks and score big hundreds – his match-saving double-century against New Zealand a year and a half ago being a case in point – and therefore, was supposed be a leader of the otherwise largely inexperienced batting unit. He was caught ‘fishing’ five out of six times in the three Tests.

In the first Test in Barbados, it seemed he was trying to get out that way. His side at a precarious 5 for 1, he got his bat instinctively to nibble at a delivery, but that was dropped by Alastair Cook at second slip. Soon after, he tried again, but the ball evaded third slip and went to the boundary. He poked a third time, this time to offspinner Ali, to end a bizarre innings, for nine. Chanderpaul’s failure, although tough to take, too, wasn’t formulaic at least. The 40-year old veteran dug in every time, but failed to take advantage of it, finding ways to get out, with a chip to a fielder, or an edge to slip, or a drag on to the stumps. His dismissal for a duck at a crucial stage in the chase of 192 in Barbados was worrying. It seemed he was burdened. It seemed he was playing like Ricky Ponting against South Africa in 2012, when the struggles forced the Australian to retire. Chanderpaul’s scores were – 46, 13, 1, 7, 25 and 0, from a man who is known to find light amid gloom all around him, his experience was expected to lift his side’s batting.

But this task was taken up by young Blackwood. In the first Test, he took his chances, and enjoyed to attack, lofting fast bowlers over long-off a few times, on his way to an entertaining century. His second innings dismissal, as he came down the wicket to smash Chris Jordan to the leg side, but got an inside edge through to the wicketkeeper, attracted criticism. He failed to turn up in his most confident, in Grenada, perishing in the second innings there again due to his itching to attack. But the script in Barbados was dictated by him. His aggressive innings of 85, amid wickets all around him, proved crucial, as it allowed him to maximise the score and bridge the gap between the two first innings scores of the teams as much as he could in the circumstances. But in the chase, with Bravo, he showed qualities of graft and solidity. He kept repeating his comfort in the post-match interview about his ‘natural game’, but this ‘natural game’ was evolving into something substantial, if one were to find clues in this concluding knock of the series.

The man who occupied a slot two spots higher than him in the order, Marlon Samuels, had an average series, with 225 runs in six innings. His only fifty-plus score was a knock of 103 in a losing cause.

With this inability to depend on their proven batsmen, it is clear batting was their weaker suit. If they are to challenge the top teams consistently, which they seem to want, they will need more reliability in their batting. Perhaps, over the years, Holder may assume more value as a batsman, and if he stays focused as his temperament suggests, his side will surely be stronger in their batting.

But despite the relative success of a 1-1 draw, it was the willingness to fight that was noteworthy. That they readied themselves to come back from defeat, clinching a win eventually, shows their keenness to perform. On the final day in Barbados, there was a period when Stokes was taking England to respectability after his team’s top-order capitulation the previous day; his confidence was growing, and concern was beginning to grow in the West Indian camp. Bravo, at slip, kept slapping the ground and rolled his arm with his fists clenched, in celebration of the wicket of Stokes, who had perished to Permaul. Gower, in the commentary box, was amused, but perhaps it showed a glimpse of the hunger he and his unit had. They ticked a few boxes, but more importantly, gave themselves a promise to keep doing that, and a lot more. Under Darren Sammy for a brief period, the team looked to be moving towards that path, before the momentum was broken. Hopefully, this one is going to be built more securely.

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