It has taken a long time and it has been a rather slow grind, but at last, there are signs that West Indies cricket might have taken an upward trajectory. It has been languishing at the bottom of the Test cricket pile for a long time. Recent performances against Pakistan, England, and Zimbabwe, however, shows that Test cricket in the West Indies has not yet died a slow and painful death. They next travel to New Zealand for two test matches and fans will be keen on the progress to continue.
There is, in the Caribbean, an emerging group of young players that should form a substantial pool from which the selectors will be able to fish decent talent. Despite huge concerns in many quarters about the way the Professional Cricket League (PCL) was inaugurated, it now appears that the professional atmosphere is bearing some fruit.
Yet there are weaknesses in the team that need to be addressed if the progress is to be sustained. One major issue is that of the role of captain Jason Holder. As things stand, the tall Barbadian is one of the four main bowlers in the side. But, while he is capable of grabbing important wickets he has not been consistently penetrative enough to merit a full-time bowling spot.
After 28 Tests, he only has 52 wickets, less than two per game, surely not enough for one of a four-man attack. An economy rate of 2.57 indicates steadiness, but an 87 strike-rate suggests he doesn’t take his wickets anywhere near as often as his team requires.
Currently batting at eight in the order, Holder has played a number of sizeable and important innings for the West Indies. His composure with bat in hand indicates a player with the wherewithal to contribute regularly and substantially, a player capable of batting higher in the order. And Holder batting at six would create a spot for a well-needed additional bowler, perhaps someone like Alzarri Joseph, a young player of pace and promise.
Holder has two Test centuries to his name and averages 30.27, ideally not high enough for someone in the top six. But this gives him a higher average than Jermaine Blackwood, Kieron Powell, and Shane Dowrich, all of whom currently bat above him in the order. He undoubtedly has the capacity to improve his numbers, and there are a number of experts who think that his best role is as a batsman who bowls.
A good Test team has to regularly take twenty wickets without allowing the opposition too many runs. The West indies have struggled to do that. Their triumph over England at Leeds was memorable, but who knows if it would have been achieved without England’s second innings declaration at 490/8? The bowlers did well in limiting the hosts to 258 in their first innings, but appeared to wilt as Moeen Ali and Chris Woakes erected a rollicking partnership.
After a fairly straightforward win in the first game of a two-match series against bottom-ranked Zimbabwe, the hosts forced a draw in the second. The West Indies led by over a hundred runs in first innings and had Zimbabwe reeling at 46/4. But then their bowlers had a hard time finishing them off and the game ended with Zimbabwe at 301/7. Graeme Cremer and Regis Chakabva had added 91 for the eighth wicket.
Clearly, the West Indies’ bowling is in need of augmentation and so if the move is made to place Holder at six, the team could benefit immensely. It would give the attack well-needed depth, a quality it has lacked for a long time.
Shannon Gabriel’s pace is impressive and there are signs he has been developing other skills of the fast-bowling trade. Kemar Roach is bowling well despite being robbed of some pace by injury. Both are now capable leaders of the attack.
But, they need more help than they have been getting. Extending the bowling options available could make for a significantly more capable unit, especially since leg-spinner Davendra Bishoo showed better form in Zimbabwe after underperforming in England.
The main argument against Holder at six is that it would weaken the batting. This would be particularly perilous in a side not immune to the occasional batting collapse. It is possible, of course, that the move could fail. Yet there is a reasonable chance it could make the team better and therefore more competitive.
The side’s young batsmen are not without quality, especially Shai Hope who has given hints that greatness is within his reach. If Powell can form a solid alliance with Brathwaite at the top of the order, and Blackwood can bring more steadiness to bear on his sometimes frenetic batting, then they have the makings of a competent batting unit.
The right time to have made the change was probably during the Zimbabwe tour. Having missed that opportunity, however, they should ensure it happens during the upcoming visit to New Zealand.
For sure, this adjustment requires some intrepidity on the part of selectors who have exhibited a rather conservative outlook as of late. But it is worth a try. If the West Indies are to continue on the road to becoming a more competitive Test team, its bowling strength has to be improved. The one thing a good team must have is good bowling.