Global game’s flaws mean Holder is a world leader without acclaim
There was just a hint of a Test slipping away. West Indies’ remorseless bowling before lunch had given way to more wayward fare.
Twice, West Indies had set up Ben Stokes; twice, they had spilt chances international cricketers would expect to take. Stokes and Jos Buttler were adding brisk runs.
At this point, Jason Holder, the captain, could be seen urging his team to maintain their intensity. “It was a pivotal moment,” Holder said. “We weren’t disciplined enough after the lunch break. And I just wanted the guys to get back on it.”
Four overs later, Holder took on the role, bringing himself back into the attack. His plan to Stokes was simple. “I just wanted to be really consistent to him. He was really settled and countering the line we were bowling. But I was getting just enough movement to keep him at bay, keep him playing.”
His ninth ball kissed Stokes’s outside edge, terminating the most dangerous partnership of England’s innings. In his next over, Holder found late movement to snare Buttler, too.
From risking frittering away their advantage, now West Indies were in the ascendant. Not long afterwards, Holder led his team off the field with Test-best figures of six for 42 from 20 overs.
In the mid-1980s, international cricket had the greatest assemblage of all-rounders the sport has seen, with Ian Botham, Imran Khan, Kapil Dev and Richard Hadlee.
The build-up to this series has almost recalled those days. With Stokes captaining England for the first time, the sides are led by the best and second-best all-rounders in the world. Except their ranking runs counter to perception.
“Ben has always been talked up, and quite rightfully so,” Holder said this week. “But the rankings say
that I’m the No1 ranked all-rounder and maybe I don’t get as much credit as I deserve, who knows.”
Part of the rationale is the notion that Stokes is a better big-game performer. But consider Holder’s preparations before this Test. While battling an ankle injury, he bowled only five overs and scored seven runs in three innings.
Come the test that mattered, Holder was ready. Again. This was his third defining contribution to the first Test of an England-West Indies series, to go with his matchsaving 103 not out in 2015 and 202 not out in the first Test of 2019. Stokes’s big-match pedigree is not in doubt – but neither is Holder’s.
And, in recent years, Holder’s consistency exceeds even Stokes’s. Since the start of 2018, he has 680 runs at 42.50 apiece to go with his 59 wickets at just 13.49. This is a 30-month body of work that any of those great 1980s all-rounders would gladly have claimed.
Perhaps the interesting question, then, is why Holder still weighs some way lighter than Stokes in popular perception. The answer sheds light on modern cricket.
Since the start of 2018, West Indies have played only 16 Tests. England have played 29 – and, had they not left Sri Lanka prematurely due to Covid-19, it would have been 31.
Even the Tests that West Indies do play tend to be in two-match series, denying Holder a chance to shape a broader narrative. That Stokes is hailed as a big-game performer without peer is partly because he gets to play more big games.
The same argument can be applied to New Zealand’s Tom Latham, unobtrusively one of the world’s best opening batsmen; Bangladesh’s wicketkeeper Mushfiqur Rahim, who averages 51 in six Tests against India; and Holder’s team-mate Kemar Roach.
For all their consistent excellence, the barrier between these men and wider acclaim is the same. However good you are as a West Indies or New Zealand Test cricketer – or really, one from anywhere other that Australia, England and India – economics mean you do not get to play much Test cricket.
Holder himself has suggested some of the best solutions. A minimum wage for Test cricket, which he advocates, would ensure that, when their countries do play, players would not be better off playing domestic cricket elsewhere.
Add it to a World Test Championship, or a Test World Cup worthy of the name, and the sport would not allow the No1 Test all-rounder to be a titan hiding in plain sight.
Setting the tone: Jason Holder dismisses Jos Buttler (above) on his way to Test best figures of six for 42 (below)