With so much currently going on in the world of sport to think that a Test match is being held at St. Lucia in the Caribbean may not immediately spike the viewers’ attention. Not in the least when it is known that the FIFA World Cup and a 5-day Test match involving the West Indies and Sri Lanka is set to fall on the same day.
June 14, 2018, is an interesting date, whatsoever. Even if, for the majority of the cricket-viewing public, the sight of a West Indies winning their last Test match and thus, moving on to hopefully consolidate position at St Lucia would mean a new experience, hitherto less-seen, even less heard of.
When was the West Indies last staring at a series win, other than its memorable tour to Zimbabwe, 2017-end would make even cricket’s self-styled advocates and number-crunchers opt for some almonds.
Had Shannon Gabriel’s last over wild-slog against Yasir Shah not have happened (2016-end), even then the West Indies wouldn’t have won the Test series against Pakistan. When Roston Chase and Shane Dowrich- interestingly, West Indies’ hero in the Trinidad Test at Brian Lara-land- got together to offer the dead defence of the bats against India, they were playing for a draw, which was successfully achieved. Even then, a Test series win didn’t transpire.
The West Indies lost comfortably against Sri Lanka, comfortably enough to stare at the literal bottom of the ICC Test rankings in 2015, from the onset of which polarised outcomes began hitting the surface of the sea. In the last 3 years of Test cricket, they’ve been arguably the most improved side barring Afghanistan, whose limited-overs prowess has translated into Test entry. It all began with captain Jason Holder delivering his very best Test knock, thus far, a hard-fought century at North Sound, Antigua in 2015. Later, the team would deliver itself from the devil- a bowling attack featuring James Anderson and the ever-agile Stuart Broad. Driven by a Blackwood and Bravo special deflating the life out of England at where things ‘usually happen’ for the West Indies, Barbados would offer a handsome 5-wicket win.
It was three years back in time. It was the peak summers of 2015. Something the Caribbean fans may not forget, ever. To the rest of the world, it was a flash in the pan for the dogmatic style of West Indies- un-attacking, unflashy, ever resistant to change- turning its back on usual conduct in Test cricket. But for the home side, the West Indies had secured something like an Oscar signalling a turnaround.
At the back of Bravo and Blackwood’s inspiring match-winning efforts, Bridgetown Barbados hailed the home team. Then, the improving side would gain new colours of “Hope”, with a Chase already being amid the unit. No longer would Kraigg Brathwaite consider himself as the only man standing with Darren Bravo to work a comeback for an often fledgeling side. Suddenly, the middle order began showing teeth, also of power and earnest smile.
The recent claim of Jason Holder, who declared, perhaps a tad bit impassioned, “We have among the strongest lower orders in the world”, following his team’s 226 run smashing of a clearly perplexed very uneasy Sri Lanka seemed to have substance, instead of irrationality. The first signs of these were felt when the West Indies gatecrashed India’s party at Jamaica.
Agreed the match was rain-assisted and turned into a draw. But a special from Dowrich, offering phenomenal rear-guard resistance led by the stoicism of Roston Chase- 137 not out- would mean that even a Virat Kohli joined his hands for a clap. Of course, within months, Roston Chase would strike domineering hundreds against Pakistan.
His opponents would the ones that pointed India to the exit gates at the 2017 Champion’s Trophy- Mohammad Aamir, leading the pace attack. What was more? The West Indies had to contend with the likes of Misbah and Younus, two modern day gladiators of the Test arena.
But it didn’t matter to Gabriel and Holder, Bishoo in support. The famous “81 all out” meant that Alzarri Joseph and Roston Chase, nowadays a keen offie offering useful support wouldn’t have to work their muscles as the under-appreciated Guyanese along with his captain and Gabriel would chew out Pakistan.
For years together, the famous 106-run win for the West Indies over Pakistan will long play out as an inspirational march toward a glory that none saw coming. Later on, the West Indies would play less of Test Cricket before making Zimbabwe- a team, none are talking about these days- at their homeland before they’d return to the Caribbean, having witnessed the globetrotting rise of Evin Lewis (in ODI, T20 formats) to grind Sri Lanka to dust.
The location for the latest seismic shifts in fortune would be the twin islands of Trinidad and Tobago. So this time around, as the West Indies attempt to foil Sri Lanka’s chances of seeking their only Test win at the Caribbean, previously denied in 2003 thanks to a Lara special, what can they possibly do?
Not that one needs to chart out a thesis on the same. For starters, to their advantage, bowling main-stay of Sri Lanka, alongside Herath and, Lakmal, Gamage has gone back. And so has Angelo Mathews who could’ve been a tough nut to crack. Although, the second inning score of 31 off 80 did indicate that former captain Mathews was improving.
Now that the scenario is out of contention, the West Indies would much rather focus on the likes of Kemar Roach- these days as good a batsman down the order as a frontline seamer- and Holder to try and rally around Gabriel to challenge Chandimal. So effective has been Chandimal as an antidote to other teams’ prevalence in a Test that taking his mere wicket signals the advantage for the other sides.
As of the recent First Test, Trinidad, wherein Chandimal had begun to look settled in the second innings, a foul airy, shot signalled his end. But could that mean that the giant has been awakened in the studious right-hander?
There will, of course, be other factors that’ll play on West Indies’ mind. The previous games’ centurion Kusal Mendis, who also made his debut against the West Indies, will be raring to go. Should Sri Lanka win the toss and begin to bat, he’ll play a handy part in upsetting his opponents, arguably the stronger side on current form.
While, at all times, the West Indies will be focused at denying the Lankan batsmen bonus runs, a lot of which they leak through inconsistencies at bowling. For instance, how many of their die-hard fans cared to look at the “extras” column? There were 42 and 14 extras conceded by the West Indies bowlers, respectively, in Sri Lanka’s first and second batting innings.
While the selectors may want to decide between who to open the bowling with- from Gabriel and Cumins, the latter also contributing mightily to the Test win, wisdom suggests that even if the new ball is handed over to Shanon Gabriel, Cummins should be his new ball partner.
It may just work wonders for his experience. The problems in the top order continue if you have followed the performances lately. While vice-captain is due for a big-score, having not even collected 20 runs from the victorious Trinidad Test. The biggest question, of all, is also the easiest to guess.
Just what difference can Devon Smith possibly bring to the side? In the second inning, after a flop show in the first, on the very next ball at which he was bowled of a no-ball, Smith played on to Lakmal on a delivery that was clearly outside his off stump. Should he wish to extend his Test return, he cannot offer a no-score or at best, a 40. There are youngsters out there who are in pursuit of the opening slot.
Among them, last game’s heroic scorer of arguably the most delightful inning purely on the merit of timing the ball- Kieran Powell (his 88 of just 127 at a strike rate of nearly 70)- was a feast to the eye. The sign of a batsman in confidence, most of Powell’s shots came off the front foot- head down steadily and the bat straight as a line drawn by a ruler.
There was beauty in his geometrical alignment with the bat. Fans who have had enough of seeing their side being beaten fair and square would desire Hetmyer to be brought in and for Smith to step out. And maybe, there’s a sense in that, isn’t it?
If that were to happen, it would mean that Hetymyer could be tried for 2 innings and then Smith again in the Third Test. What this would serve effectively is for a deserving talent in Hetmyer – considering he still needs to sober down his attacking style for conversion into meaningful Test scores- to get a chance and for Smith to not take the side lightly, at being picked for this Test at the back of a failure in the first.
However, regardless of that, the West Indies would purely, for the self-confidence of the Bajan duo- want both Chase and Hope to build scores. If anyone was a witness to the most inspiring event in the history of West Indian cricket in the last decade- the twin centuries off Hope’s bat at The Headingley- then to have seen the Barbadian throw his wicket away cheaply in the second inning would’ve been an exercise in self-loathing and disgust. He’s better. He’s way better than that. And for the West Indies to truly savour another team performances, it would matter every bit more to see Chase contribute through the bat as he so fantastically did through the red ball.
Fans are desperate for a continuance of this turnaround. It’s one that often escapes faster than it emerges. Cricket’s had enough. The West Indies have had enough of being taken to the cleaners. As have past greats and living legends. Imagine the smile the sight of a Test series win at St. Lucia could bring to a Lara, Chanderpaul, Sir Viv Richards, Sir Sobers, Clie Lloyd and, Hall? For that to happen, it will be mighty important that the West Indies rely less on fate and more on the outcome of the effort.
Just playing the natural game would make it happen. While it may mean for Brathwaite up the order to leave a ball and then to follow the bad one outside, square of the wicket, to a Dowrich, it may mean to collect runs, as is a natural style. For now, all eyes are set on St. Lucia.
Can the West Indies deliver something special?