How West Indies are re­viv­ing their sta­tus as kings of pace bowl­ing

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport Cricket - By Tim Wig­more

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.

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