Are things getting gradually better or gradually worse for West Indies cricket? In terms of the fortunes of the Test team, the answer, regrettably, must be the latter.
In the year 1988, West Indies followed up four wins in England with three in Australia: seven successes in a calendar year in two of the toughest places to tour (and in those days tours were tough, long assignments with many additional fixtures). Greenidge, Haynes and Richards were still on the scene, and they together with a young Ambrose and a battle-hardened Marshall formed the nucleus of such a formidable side.
The decline was just around the corner, however. There were 25 overseas Test wins in all for the Windies in their golden era of the 1980s, but just 11 in the 1990s. And since then it’s been even worse. In the 16 years that are almost complete of this millennium there have been just nine overseas Test wins achieved by West Indies. Shockingly, only two have been against teams other than Zimbabwe or Bangladesh.
Given this background, it is hardly surprising that even after reducing Australia to an almost precarious 121-3 at lunch on day one of the Hobart Test, our WinViz barometer almost scoffed at the suggestion of anything other than an Australia victory. It gave the hosts an 81.4% win chance, with “gun” batsmen David Warner and Steven Smith back in the changing rooms.
Let’s be clear: this was the one point in the match when we appeared to be witnessing a genuine contest between two proud cricketing nations, but Australia were in fact unusually robust favourites considering the score, and their position became ever rosier from that point.
Indeed, what happened after lunch only served to back up all negative preconceptions of the state of West Indies cricket. Despite being fresh, having bowled a short, single opening spell each, the new-ball bowlers Kemar Roach and Jerome Taylor were not called upon at all until deep into the middle session.
Adam Voges and Shaun Marsh, the latter in particular under pressure to keep his place in the side with Usman Khawaja due to re-enter the fray at some point, were allowed to play themselves in against two far more inviting bowlers. They were Jomel Warrican, the 23-year-old left-arm spinner who had bowled one ripper to send back Smith but otherwise lacked either consistency or menace, and the skipper Jason Holder, an honest seam-up medium-fast man who has not exactly blown away middle orders in his Test career to date.
The defensive fields in operation were hopelessly naïve too; West Indies were rapidly sleep-walking their way into a losing position. And though Holder may have argued that Roach and Taylor’s opening bursts had not been up to scratch, by holding them back for so long before their second spells on that opening day he was draining the last drops of positivity from their muddled minds.
When Australia subsequently recovered so effectively through Voges and Marsh that they were able to declare at 583-4, they then showed the value of bowling at the right length. This was a good pitch to drive on, and West Indies bowled too many half-volleys. Jerome Taylor, in taking 0-108 in 17 overs, dished out 17 juicy half-volleys which disappeared for 39 runs. Work it out: exactly one freebie an over in the perfect slot to drive and plenty of them being hit for boundaries.
Josh Hazlewood, the best bowler in the match, bowled just eight half-volleys across both West Indies innings, during which time he sent down 28.3 overs. That’s about one every four overs. Discipline is such an important part of Test match bowling and West Indies (Taylor in particular) were lacking.
When trying to pick the pieces out of this innings-and-212-run reversal in Hobart, it’s important to offer some balance and perspective when looking at West Indies cricket. Outside the Test sphere, they have enjoyed a couple of important high points in the last dozen years.
On a bitterly cold late September evening in London in 2004, they lifted the ICC Champions Trophy, unexpectedly beating the hosts in a low-scoring final thanks to a late batting heist by Courtney Browne and Ian Bradshaw. Then, in 2012, they again found a way to poop a home nation’s party, trumping Sri Lanka in Colombo in a remarkable, low-scoring ICC World Twenty final.
Amid all the internal conflicts, the lure of the Twenty20 leagues, the battle for cricket to resonate culturally in the Caribbean in this era, perhaps the most dispiriting aspect of all has been the state of pitches in the West Indies. It’s little wonder that fast bowlers have struggled to prosper given the surfaces simply don’t suit them any more.
In that World Twenty20 final, West Indies only needed two seamers and relied on four spinners, among them the excellent Sunil Narine. With some decent power hitters in the team as well, they had morphed into a perfect side to challenge for honours in this kind of tournament in the sub-continent. It’s a bizarre state of affairs for those who remember the West Indies teams of old.
So while the Test side is in danger of losing eighth place in the official Test rankings to Bangladesh, in the shortest format the West Indies team continues to prosper and will have a shout in next year’s World Twenty20 in India.
Of much more immediate concern is the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne, which they enter with only one batsman (Darren Bravo) boasting a career average in the 40s, an important bowler (Shannon Gabriel) out injured, a captain who looks strategically lost and some motivational issues to sort out. It may not be a pretty sight.