How West Indies are reviving their status as kings of pace bowling
When he was a boy, Jason Holder famously appeared in Fire in
Babylon, the film celebrating the apotheosis of West Indies Test cricket. One part of this story was the pace and bounce of the Caribbean pitches.
At the start of 2016, Holder – both a brilliant cricketer and, to last for five years as Test captain, an astute diplomat – railed against how far these pitches had given way to attritional surfaces. “We need to work a bit more on improving our pitches,” he said. “Also, the viewing of the cricket would be a lot better.”
In the domestic one-day tournament “the ball has spun quite early and quite sharply”, Holder lamented. “I’ve found it very difficult so far batting in this tournament. I think spinners are dominating.”
In the 2015-16 Caribbean firstclass season, 63 per cent of all wickets were taken by spinners; even in India’s Ranji Trophy, the figure is only 40.4 per cent since 2015.
“We were seeing pretty much right through the pathway, a real dominance from slow bowling across the region,” says Jimmy Adams, the West Indies’ director of cricket. “The feeling was that it wasn’t necessarily because of the quality of the spin bowling.”
Pitches had become slower and lower from the late Nineties when he was playing, Adams recalls. Richard Pybus, his predecessor as director of cricket, began trying to bring pace back in the Caribbean in 2014, appointing Kent Crafton as Cricket West Indies’ first regional curator.
Crafton told regional head groundsmen he wanted more pace and consistency of bounce. “We put a very strong emphasis on pitch maintenance,” he says.
The pitches were also too dry – “we encouraged curators to grow grass on the squares” – and many grounds used the heavy roller too much, nullifying pace and bounce.
The mere fact of Crafton’s position is significant. “Culturally, it meant moving people away from a mindset that almost looked down on pitch curators,” Adams says.
Crafton’s work was married to wider changes. In 2011, West Indies became only the second nation after England to use the Dukes ball at home; the bigger seam is regarded as offering more assistance to seam bowlers than the Kookaburra.
More radically, Cricket West Indies reformed the points system. Bonus points for pace wickets are now given in regional youth cricket.
Since 2016-17, teams have earned 0.2 bonus points for each wicket taken in the regional four-day competition through pace. Last season, Barbados won the first-class tournament after taking more wickets with pace than anyone else.
Such aggressive, even artificial, support for pace is not borne of nostalgia. “It’s a little bit more cynical than that,” Adams says. “We need a supply of fast bowlers if we’re going to be competitive in international cricket.”
There is now more centralised support for the best young players.
“We were looking at tournaments and thinking, where are these players – not just fast bowlers – who we think are the next generation? And they’re not being selected even at home,” Adams says.
In 2018-19, the West Indies Emerging Team were invited to the Regional Super50 tournament; they won the competition last year.
A programme for young fast bowlers began in 2017, with the most promising quicks going to Antigua for coaching. “We can give a little leeway if the person doesn’t have a million wickets – but they’re showing us that, at 17 or 18, they can bowl close to 85 clicks,” Adams says.
Caribbean bowling has always been far more multifaceted than all-out pace: think of Lance Gibbs, Garry Sobers’s two types of left-arm spin, Sonny Ramadhin, Alf Valentine and, in Twenty20, Sunil Narine and Samuel Badree. But moving away from more subcontinental wickets may well be better suited to exploiting home advantage.
“At the moment, our batsmen are not to the level that we want them to be – then bank on your fast bowlers. It’s a good strategy for now,” says Ian Bishop, the former West Indies quick bowler. “It’s produced more attractive cricket as well.”
In 2018, Bangladesh – now a highly competitive side in subcontinental conditions – were skittled for 43 in Antigua. In the first two Tests of their series in 2019, England lost a wicket every 32 balls.
“Fast bowlers have had a good time bowling in our conditions,” Crafton says. “Our players – even the batters – feel more comfortable on the quicker pitches.”
The attack that awaits England – perhaps the West Indies’ best pace battery since the mid-Nineties – is the result of concerted attempts to revive quick bowling. The Caribbean pace resurgence has been written from the ground up.