Variety delivers the spice for formidable West Indies attack
The quartet of fast bowlers form a devastating unit as they offer a differing threat through speed, angle and movement
Kemar Roach is the highest wicket-taker in the West Indies squad and was the chief destroyer of England in the Caribbean last year. In the opening Test at the Ageas Bowl, Roach did not even take a wicket. It is a measure of the fast-bowling strength of the West Indies that they still secured a fine victory.
All sides crave two things from their bowling attacks: quality and variety. The individual qualities of the four Caribbean quick bowlers is not in doubt. And, while Roach, Shannon Gabriel, Alzarri Joseph and captain Jason Holder are all right-armers, they pose very different challenges for batsmen.
“We’ve got varieties to our attack,” said Holder. “Our fast bowlers complement each other. And we’ve been able to get some solid results on the back of consistency and being as disciplined as we have been in the last couple of years.”
‘McGrath would say if he’s bowling 20-odd dot balls consecutively, a wicket is around corner’
Despite failing to take a wicket in Southampton, Roach is the leader of the attack. A simple glance at the seven pace bowlers – Courtney Walsh, Curtly Ambrose, Malcolm Marshall, Joel Garner, Michael Holding, Gary Sobers and Andy Roberts – to have more than Roach’s 193 Test wickets for West Indies attests to his quality. Against England in the Caribbean last year, he snared 18 wickets at 13.9 apiece.
From being a tearaway quick who famously forced Ricky Ponting to retire hurt in his fifth Test, Roach’s career has been a story of reinvention. In the judgment of his captain, Roach is “shorter, more skilled and tends to be very, very nagging in terms of his length and line”. Roach’s extra pace has been shed; in its stead have come wonderfully subtle skills, using swing, seam and the width of the crease.
Going wide to right-handers but hugging the stumps tightly when attacking left-handers, Roach perhaps uses the crease more skilfully than any other quick today. Roach has gone round the wicket 77 per cent of the time to left-handers since 2015, the second-highest figure in the world. Indeed, West Indies are at the apex of a rising trend in Test cricket: of right-arm quick bowlers attacking left-handers from around the wicket, a tactic that has seen pace bowlers pay 24 runs, rather than 30, for each Test wicket of a left-hander since 2018.
Holder and Gabriel both claimed one of England’s two left-handed batsmen – Ben Stokes and Rory Burns – from around the wicket. Roach is remorseless in his parsimony. His 41 overs at the Ageas Bowl yielded just 91 runs.
Such discipline allows Gabriel, Roach’s new-ball partner, to attack with gusto. “He’s a tearaway quick, who can rattle top orders but also come back and hit a hard length consistently,” Holder observed.
Gabriel is the quickest and, hurling the ball from a wide trajectory, is a persistent threat to the stumps. Only one bowler who has taken 100 wickets or more in Test cricket over the last 50 years – Shoaib Akhtar – hit the stumps more frequently than Gabriel, who gets 34.5 per cent of his wickets bowled.
Holder is comfortably the slowest of the quartet. But his height (6ft 7in), along with prodigious swing and seam movement, make him a persistent threat. A relative absence of pace also enables Holder to settle into long spells. Since the start of 2018, he has taken 60 Test wickets at just 14.08, taking a wicket every 34 balls while conceding under 2.5 runs an over. “The great Glenn McGrath would always say if he’s bowling 20-odd dot balls consecutively then a wicket is around the corner,” says Holder.
Aged 23, Joseph is the junior of the quartet; unlike Roach a decade ago, he has the benefit of coming into a well-grooved attack who will allow him to grow into his work. Joseph combines adroit use of the crease with a whippy action.
He is a natural back-of-a-length bowler, so he gets bounce despite his low frame. Joseph was managed well, so, in the last throes of the fourth day, he retained his freshness, dismissing Zak Crawley and Jos Buttler in a burst that shifted the course of the Test.