“Whatever the result at the end, however, Caribbean cricket fans will be disappointed if their pacemen don’t leave a lasting mark on this series. These pacers of great-promise are expected to do well, even if the egos and bodies of opposition batsmen will not be as bruised and battered as when the West Indies visited in their heyday”

 

In early December 2017, the batsmen of the touring West Indies team were cornered and blown away in Wellington by a brutal short-pitched assault from New Zealand speedster Neil Wagner. In 14.4 overs the left-arm pacer bludgeoned out seven batsmen for just 39 runs, career-best figures. And while he executed his bowling plan expertly, it has to be said that the West Indies batsmen exhibited almost total ineptness in dealing with the high-bouncing ball.

Many Caribbean cricket adherents felt that level of ineptitude was due to the dearth of fast bowling in the regional four-day competition. Wickets unfriendly to fast bowling meant that spin became the weapon of choice, and spinners, for a long time, dominated the bowling rankings at the end of each season.

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During that same 2017 season, Jamaica played the Leeward Islands at Basseterre in the fourth round of the regional Professional Cricket League (PCL). The Jamaican bowling attack was made up of two fast bowlers and three spinners, besides other part-time spinners. Of the 19 wickets, Jamaica captured during the game (one player was absent hurt) only two fell to seam. Sixteen fell to spin. One batsman was run out.

During the Leeward Islands’ first innings the seamers used the new ball for eight overs before the Jamaican captain handed it to a spinner. In their second innings, it was spin after just five overs.

That was in no way unique to the Jamaican team. Spin had become so dominant that a few years prior, then director of cricket, Richard Pybus, contemplated initiating special fast bowling camps to augment the bowling stocks.

At the end of the 2015-16 first-class season, he made this announcement: “We are prioritizing and looking at some camps for our fast bowlers… possibly some measures offseason to prioritize fast bowling in the four-day competition”.

“This is going to be central to us getting that back at the heart of West Indies cricket again…The competition has been still dominated too much by the spin bowlers. That is something that we will have to seriously address during the offseason to make sure that we are prioritizing the fast bowlers”.

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The signs were clear: Caribbean cricket required some kind of a turnaround. It needed to make a return to its roots, to the days when “pace like fire” was a well-known proclamation around the islands.

Four or so years later, a revival is in full bloom. Wickets, made sprightly once again, along with the emergence of real seam-bowling talent, has underlined the value of the fast-bowling art and appears to have placed Caribbean cricket on an upward path.

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The West Indies squad arrived in England amply fortified with fast bowlers of high pace and considerable talent. They will take on the Englishmen under the shadow of Covid-19 but with the impetus of a stirring 2-1 victory when both sides last grappled together in early 2019. That win was mainly built on formidable fast bowling from a four-pronged attack that brought back memories of the West Indies’ era of world domination.

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Kemar Roach, Jason Holder, Shannon Gabriel, and Alzarri Joseph, operating on pace-friendly Caribbean wickets, bowled with skill, hostility, and purpose to keep the Englishmen under a tight rein, one they never managed to loosen until the last test. By that time the series was already lost.

They will enter the series with much the same fast attack. Roach is still a leader, and one of the more adept operators in the game. Jason Holder’s menace as a bowler has multiplied over the last two years or so and he has rocketed up the test rankings as a result. Some doubt hangs over Shannon Gabriel, who is recovering from ankle surgery.

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But coach Phil Simmons is on record saying that “a fit Shannon Gabriel is a sure pick,”  and he appears to be showing good form in their first warm-up game. Alzarri Joseph continues his development as a bowler capable of eliciting swing at a high pace, while Chemar Holder, the young man who starred alongside him during the 2016 youth World Cup is coming off an excellent first-class season.

There is also a number of fast bowlers among the reserves brought on a tour that oozes potential. Oshane Thomas, the big Jamaican, has already developed a reputation for scorching speed, which has already brought him some success against the hosts in White-ball cricket. And youngsters like Keon Harding and Anderson Phillips could play stellar roles in a probable great fast-bowling future for the Caribbean.

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These are sudden riches that have brought hope to West Indies cricket fans. According to bowling coach Roddy Estwick, speaking from their training base at Old Trafford, “Our bowling will be key to us and we’re beginning to get blessed again with fast bowlers in the Caribbean. I think this is the best group since the great days. We’ve got a number of fast bowlers we think can challenge any team in the world and this is an exciting time.”

Still, the West Indies should have a challenging time in England. Their batting, largely considered less capable than their bowling, could be made to struggle against stalwart bowlers like Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad, quite proficient at exploiting their home conditions, and bowlers of blistering speed like Jofra Archer and Mark Wood.

Upstaging the home side will undoubtedly be tough. But if the visiting batsmen are able to put up reasonable scores then their bowling unit may be able to make things difficult for the home side.

Whatever the result at the end, however, Caribbean cricket fans will be disappointed if their pacemen don’t leave a lasting mark on this series. These pacers of great-promise are expected to do well, even if the egos and bodies of opposition batsmen will not be as bruised and battered as when the West Indies visited in their heyday.