Windies: Blow hot, blow cold

Sandip G
West Indies will need their bowlers to come good in the two-match series against India beginning in North Sound on Thursday. (Express photo by Sandip G)

Shannon Gabriel is peeling off a mango, gifted by a member of the ground staff. Shimron Hetmyer is pasting a brand sticker on his bat. Someone shouts out: Here we go, boys and the West Indies players stir from their reveries and get into a huddle with coach Floyd Reifer, who makes a pithy speech before practice begins: Don t drop your heads, fight and strive, glory shall be ours.

Just wait till the Test series starts and some serious (West Indies) bowlers who can bowl over 145 kmph hurl bouncers; all this talk of rift (between Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma) would stop. It s absolutely untrue and anyway, once the real game starts, no one would have time for it. This West Indies team is a good Test team; don t forget they defeated England in a home Test series just recently. It s not about trying to be not complacent; that you try to do against weaker teams. This West Indies Test bowling is very good and you have to be at your best to play them, a senior member of the Indian Test squad had said before the series.

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It s a pretty spot-on observation, but why then does this West Indian Test team carry the perception that they aren t good enough? It s the absence that s noticeable in training: the absence of buzz and aura. The West Indies Test squad is far removed from the swaggering, blusterous, theatrical bunch that turned out in the T20s. The Test squad seems an anaesthetised bunch in comparison.

Part of the blame lies with the team as well. They have the tendency to almost coast on auto-pilot until something snaps inside them. Unless they are inspired and stirred. Usually by external factors: like condescension from an opposing team or some words fired from the other camp. Like the Australians generally tend to do to them. Or even England when Joe Root got under the skin of Shannon Gabriel in that Test series. Then this team stirs, and how!

Like they were against England in the prelude, Geoffrey Boycott had instigated them, calling them good for nothing at the stroke of this year, their most significant series win for a decade or more. Whatever England s shortcomings, they not just pipped them at the post, they thrashed them with clinical, flint-eyed certainty. The matches in Barbados and Antigua were as one-sided as any of those in the 1980s, when they bossed over and obliterated England.

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Despite the victory, the West Indies team under Jason Holder s leadership has lost many more games than it has won. After two consecutive wins against England, the ledger now stands at 15-9 and his side is currently ranked No. 8 in the world. Despite the victory, no one sees them challenging the Indians, who have claimed their maiden Test series win in Australia just six months ago, flaunting a bowling firm that some of the former greats watch in awe, possessing an envious bunch of spinners and, of course, one of the all-time great batsmen.

The blow-hot-blow-cold performances of the West Indies Test team have left fans puzzled and disappointed by the absence of their gun-for-hire T20 purveyors; even Hetmyer hasn t gone that mainstream yet. So much so that the first names that pop up when you say West Indies are those of Chris Gayle and Andre Russell. And not Jason Holder and Roston Chase. And when their names don t adorn the team-sheet, the buzz around them, whatever the remnants, automatically evaporates.

It s as if Test players are unfashionable most stadiums in the Caribbean remain scantly populated during matches. In this regard, stadium-makers blundered by building stadiums disproportionate to the local population. The one in North Sound can house 40,000, including seats and grass-banks, but the population of Antigua is barely 80,000.

Indian batting a concern

But underestimating the West Indies is inviting peril. Not just because of what they are capable of but also due to the Indian team. Besides Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara, who demonstrated in the practice game that his run-glut hasn t yet sated, there are wider concerns in their batting. Ajinkya Rahane has been flighty since the turn of last year, and hence under immense scrutiny, Rohit has yet to reel out that defining Test knock, KL Rahul’s technique has dramatically disintegrated, Mayank Agarwal is still in the nascence of his international career and Rishabh Pant is prone of impetuosity. So beneath the steel and muscle of Kohli and Pujara, there s soft, loose flab.

In many ways, they mirror some of England s deficiencies. They had an unsettled opening pair, a feeble middle order and were stacked with too many number sixes. While the West Indies bowlers don t instil fear, the kind of dread for your life, they turned out to be a utilitarian group. Kemar Roach, though reduced in pace, is a wily customer, doing what Courtney Walsh did in the latter stages of his career, bowling with impeccable smarts. Gabriel, though awkward with his action and inconsistent in his lengths, could discomfit batsmen with the bounce he could generate with an open-chested action. Skipper Holder can keep nagging away all day long in the channel. And it s high time Chase is considered a proper spinner and not a part-timer.

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It s an ensemble cast, a case of the whole being greater than the parts, but those parts when assembled well could be a wholesomely efficient machine. The same traits could be attributed to their batting. A gritty knock here, a brave one there, and they could put up competitive totals. Kraigg Brathwaite can dig in. Shai Hope can anchor. Hetmyer can enforce. Chase can finish. In many ways, like Kohli has this Indian team, Holder has built the team in his image, a cricketer who s steady than spectacular, smart than flamboyant.

He skippers them in all formats, but in limited overs, the swaggerers of the side coax the attention. So effectively, it s the Test side he s most comfortable with, when he s not crushed by expectations, when he s not in the shadows, when he can be himself.

Since taking over the reins, Holder has led them admirably through tough times. Amid a range of arguments between the board and the players and the constant deliberations about how to combine the obvious desires of key players to earn some money in the T20 leagues with West Indies international commitments, Holder has managed to stay measured and clear-headed.

On top of that there has been the requirement to score runs and take wickets and in recent times, he has been doing that in abundance.

Still, he s not as high on the popularity scale as Gayle of Russell, not within the Caribbean cricket fraternity, where he s been already likened to Frank Worrell, their first black captain. Beating India could go a long away in increasing his popularity and asserting the identity of West Indies s Test side. And proving that the series win over England wasn t a fluke or false dawn.