West Indies pay the price for lack of bowling depth
Tourists’ weary pace attack expected to be asked to go again as the quick turnaround hands England a telling advantage
International cricket is in the age of the squad. Covid-19 will accelerate a trend already long since under way: of the best countries needing deep squads if they are to cope with the multifarious demands of one format, let alone thrive across all three.
The first two Tests of the England-West Indies series have illuminated these challenges. As West Indies proved in their series victory in the Caribbean last year, and illustrated again in their fine victory at the Ageas Bowl in the opening Test, they have a first-choice pace attack who are at least the equal of England’s.
But England did not need their first-choice pace attack to seal their series-levelling victory in the second Test. Instead, this was a triumph for those three seamers who were omitted at the Ageas Bowl. Between them, Stuart Broad, Sam Curran and Chris Woakes – a coalition of those not needed in Southampton – claimed 14 wickets at Emirates Old Trafford.
Effectively, the trio who were second choice for England a week earlier outdid the same West Indies attack who had just outperformed England’s first-choice group. Which all sounds a little confusing – except, enfeebled by their efforts in Southampton, it was the same West Indies attack in name only.
What happened to the admirable pace quartet during the second Test was simply the latest illustration of how unforgiving backto-back Tests are for quick bowlers. In the second back-toback Test of a series, pace bowlers average seven per cent more than the first, cricket analyst Edmund Bayliss has found, with the net average of quicks rising from 29.7 to 31.8 – an increase of 42 runs per Test.
So, even if conditions do not really change, the best possible bowling attack for the first of back-to-back Tests may not be the best possible attack for the second. The second Test encapsulated this truth: Shannon Gabriel’s efforts in taking nine wickets in the opening Test rendered him a much-diminished bowler. The same was true, albeit less dramatically, of the rest of the attack.
“Having the Tests in such a short turnaround has been tough – no doubt both teams will be feeling it,” said Jason Holder, the West Indies captain and a member of their pace quartet himself. “These guys have backed up Test matches before. The turnaround, this one’s been a little shorter.”
The increase in back-to-back Tests may help explain why, since 2000, away teams fare worse the longer a series goes on. Tourists win or draw 55 per cent of opening Tests in a series, but escape defeat in only half of third Tests in a series. Home teams have a stable of matchready bowlers that touring teams generally lack.
So, this is the dilemma for West Indies: do they stick with the same bowlers who so excelled in Southampton but looked exhausted at Old Trafford? Or do they see if their fast-bowling reserves can be more effective?
West Indies do not have proven bench strength to rival England’s. The two reserve quicks, Chemar Holder and Raymon Reifer, have fine first-class pedigree but have played a solitary Test between them.
Off-spinner Rahkeem Cornwall has excelled in his two Tests, but selecting him would risk further intensifying the demands on the three quicks who remain.
The sense is that, faced between selecting their ideal attack and what they consider a suboptimal attack but without any fitness concerns, West Indies will ask their first-choice quicks to go once more unto the breach.
It is an unpalatable choice of the sort that will become more common. As penurious boards condense tours further, trimming the days between internationals, and play fixtures that were cancelled by Covid-19, there will be even less time for players to recuperate.
Increasingly the battle will not just be on the pitch between the firstchoice XIs, it will also be fought between which countries can assemble depth in their squads, through a combination of a robust domestic game, a strong A-team and introducing fringe players at the right time.
Those who are successful in amassing such a broader pool of players, especially pace bowlers, will not feel compelled to select players with more pedigree but who are not in a condition to perform at their best.
The first two Tests of the summer have already shown that England have six pace bowlers they can swap in and out with minimal drop-off in quality.
For all the excellence of their first-choice attack, the attempts by West Indies to leave England with the Wisden Trophy risk being undermined by the squad who lie beneath them.
Waiting game: Playing the inexperienced Rahkeem Cornwall could put more pressure on West Indies’ pace attack