Every cricket lover of a certain age is in apparent mourning over this West Indies team.
Where you once had Sir Viv Richards masterfully playing across the line, you now have the Hopes missing straight ones and living up to everything apart from their name.
Where you once had Curtly Ambrose, Malcolm Marshall, Courtney Walsh et al combining as the fastest fusillade in the business, now you have Miguel Cummins sending down deliveries that are all too wide and none too handsome.
The most surprising aspect of their demise is that people pretend to still be surprised. The Windies have not won a Test series over any team except Bangladesh and Zimbabwe since beating New Zealand in 2012.
Don’t forget, Sir Garfield Sobers started crying over the state of his beloved team in a press conference two years ago and, on the face of it, all of his tears were shed for nought.
Pay disputes, the rise of Twenty20 and the apathy over Tests, a bungling board and the loss of talent to other sports. The reasons are numerous but the solutions are few.
Or are they? Delve deeper than their pitiful display against Edgbaston, and the skin-deep analysis from the distraught and the nostalgic, and there is cause for optimism.
A new chief in town
Johnny Grave, an Englishman who was formerly the commercial director of the UK-based Professional Cricketers Association, was chosen to guide West Indian cricket into a brave new future after being appointed CEO of the board in January.
The initial reports are that he has been an even-keeled influence to a rocking Caribbean ship – and he has helped bring Marlon Samuels and Chris Gayle back into the fold for the limited-overs games.
One of the mistakes the higher-ups made was to impose a draconian eligibility criteria on the national side, with those not appearing in the domestic 50-over competition unable to represent the side.
Bringing back the golden oldies for one last blast of course does not get to the heart of the Test problem but Grave, who is well-versed in player-board relations, is at least thawing some of those icy communication lines out.
Most promisingly, as Grave told the Jamaica Gleaner, the West Indies board has secured a $48 million increase on their funding from the ICC up to 2023 and much of that money will go towards establishing a high performance centre at the Stanford ground in Antigua.
The West Indies are also expected to announce the first of their flexible contracts next month in a bid to work around their global T20 commitments rather than demonise its rise.
“We want to incentivise our players to play Test cricket,” wrote Grave. “Our Test players will have less opportunities to play in and earn from the domesticT20 leagues, so we need to compensate them for that by giving them higher retainer contracts, and we also need to contract our white-ball cricketers in order to incentivise them to play ODI cricket, as our ODI schedule will also clash with some T20 leagues, too.”
Grave also talked about needing to be ‘the most efficient cricket board in the world’ – the WICB has fewer support staff on their books than Warwickshire, Edgbaston’s home county – but there is no shortage of quality to work with.
Tons of talent
Rishabh Pant is the heir apparent to MS Dhoni for India but, a little more than 18 months ago, he was skulking back to the pavilion sharpish after being dismissed for one in the Under-19 World Cup final.
His adversary? Alzarri Joseph, the 20-year-old whose fast bowling was widely panned at Edgbaston but looked like the brightest young thing on show in Bangladesh.
The Windies won that final by five wickets and it marked the first time they ever won the trophy – having only reached the semis when Brian Lara and Jimmy Adams were just two promising teenagers in 1988.
The mission now is to ensure this generation is not lost obscurity and poor regional coaching before they are ready for senior international cricket. It’s one thing looking good as a teenager, but no use at all if the pathway stalls for the next five years.
Though it would be unfair to write the current Test side off – by and large a clutch of players in their mid-20s – the Windies looked like they had landed in Mars instead of England so alien were the conditions. And that captain Jason Holder did not immediately take the new ball under the floodlights – it all smacks of woeful under-preparation.
The future of West Indian cricket will be relying on this generation and the next for inspiration. The ball is rolling – time will tell if it’s going somewhere or merely been dropped.
Toby Roland-Jones is not being taken seriously. South Africa certainly learned he was no joke after five wickets in the first innings and three in the second, but outside the confines of The Oval boundaries, Roland-Jones’ success was met with a cheeky grin.
He was viewed as the everyday chap with a posh-sounding name who doesn’t bowl particularly fast and is getting on a bit, but nevertheless is taking it to the Saffers. Every post-wicket cheer may as well have been rounded off with a ‘go on my son’.
But Roland-Jones isn’t the havea-go hero you’re just as likely to meet in your local club’s pavilion as at Lord’s. He is a proper, Test-class bowler to be fawned over, just like Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad, rather than someone to be faintly patronised.
The air of condescension started as soon as Roland-Jones started chipping way under gloomy, spitting clouds. ‘Great bowler in these conditions’ they crowed.
Well, Anderson, of nearly 500 Test wickets, is the archetypal bowler under grey skies – and he was hooked out of the attack in a bold move by captain Joe Root to accommodate the new man. Everyone else followed his lead.
One prominent journalist even suggested Alan Richardson, a highly productive if limited county seamer who never won a cap, would have been ‘unplayable’ in such conditions while others offered more English stalwarts of that ilk such as Dave Masters, Rikki Clarke, and even Kent’s chief dibbly-dobbler Darren Stevens.
They would only have ever touched 80mph on a very energetic day. Even though he comfortably exceeds that mark some of you, by habit, will have checked the speed gun following each of RolandJones’ wicket-taking ball and applied an asterisk to both barrels of his name.
Roland-Jones had watched Anderson and Stuart Broad bowl a touch short and immediately started pitching it fuller.
It was a change of tack that showed all his wiliness yet often on the international stage, if you lack the searing pace or simply don’t pass rigid physical parameters, guile or cleverness is sneered at as an inadequate substitution.
In fact, England have stumbled upon a highly consistent, classical seamer who perfected his game on the county circuit and delivered on debut like a player who is supremely confident of his ability.
By accident or design, they have finally placed their trust in polished county products as Tom Westley, who also showed promise as No3 batsman, plugged away at Essex for a decade before receiving his cap at the age of 28.
At one point during the first innings Roland-Jones conceded four runs from an overthrow. It may have knocked an ordinary rookie off his stride, but not a 29-year-old who has sent down nearly 17,000 balls in his first-class career.
He erred from a good line at times – he went for four an over in the second innings, a debutant can’t have it all – but he simply ambled back to his mark like he belonged. And he does. Roland-Jones also belongs in an Ashes squad, as neither flat tracks nor Australian sunshine should reveal any deficiencies.
He has taken apart some of county game’s best batting units on many benign wickets with Middlesex at Lord’s – until last year, results at the home of cricket were few and far between.
The next big thing can wait for now. The present generation, it turns out, are quite good.
No matter how much praise captain Virat Kohli heaped on his bowlers for earning those Sri Lankan wickets, and the truth is they didn’t come easy, an away Test win rarely comes as such a formality as it did in Galle.
After Shikhar Dhawan laid the foundations with a monumental knock on day one and Sri Lanka lost valuable batsman and fifth bowler Asela Gunaratne to a broken thumb (ruled out of the series), it was inevitable the Test would only have one outcome – an India win.
Cheteshwar Pujara’s hundred, Sri Lanka’s inexperience and naive shot-making, a Kohli ton and the Indian spinners wrapping it up with an entire day to spare, all then became regulation as the tourists sauntered to a 304-run victory.
As for the hosts, a blow to veteran Rangana Herath’s middle finger while fielding – it had to be his bowling hand – added insult to injury.
Sri Lanka will be indeed hoping their luck changes in the remaining two Tests – starting in Colombo on Thursday.
The fact India had to take 17 and not 20 wickets to go one-up in the series explains everything in itself. If that doesn’t, the fact it was India’s biggest-ever away win in terms of margin of victory, certainly does (their previous best being the 279-run triumph against England at Headingley 31 years ago).
For captain Herath and his men, it was their heaviest Test defeat and needless to say had him commenting post-match: “We are a better team than this.”
Amidst all of this, India think they have found an all-rounder in Hardik Pandya, who made his Test debut at Galle. The faith team management and captain placed in him was all too evident when he got the nod ahead of Chinaman Kuldeep Yadav, who had actually enjoyed a fine debut Test against Australia at Dharamsala earlier this year.
While the pitch wasn’t as favourable for a bowler like Pandya who likes to hit the deck hard, he still had a decent game.
What was absorbing to hear though, especially if you’re Pandya, were Kohli’s words in his press conference when asked about what the 23-year-old brings to the Men in Blue.
“First innings, he didn’t get the opportunity to bowl much but I think in the second innings, he bowled really nicely on a wicket that wasn’t offering much and he kept it in the right areas,” Kohli, who himself got back to form with an unbeaten ton, said.
“He used the bouncer well and bowls around 135kph, when he bends his back he can bowl faster. He is a great asset.”
Pandya bowled 10 overs in the Test and claimed the solitary wicket of Nuwan Pradeep. While his bowling was solid, the Mumbai Indians’ star’s batting spoke for itself. He hit five fours and three sixes in his 50-run knock from 49 balls, while having to refuse some runs, thanks to tail-enders at the other end.
It’s early days but there were signs Pandya will go on to play similar knocks in the future.
The newbie’s greatest challenge, and what he will face in the next couple of Tests, is the tag of becoming India’s all-important fifth bowler away from home. It’s perhaps a luxury position for most teams but it’s one that comes with plenty of scrutiny. Many teams face a similar dilemma though.
New Zealand, for example, have been searching for a pace bowling all-rounder and have given both Jimmy Neesham and Colin de Grandhomme a go, with not great rewards thus far.
South Africa too haven’t found someone as capable and skillful as the legendary Jacques Kallis. Faf du Plessis recently called Vernon Philander ‘the new Kallis’, but he’s some distance away from that privilege – despite his skill with the ball. Likewise, Chris Morris, the talented Proteas quick who at times can struggle for consistency.
For Australia, Mitchell Marsh has been trying for a while to revive his fortunes in Test cricket.
So that leads us to Ben Stokes, arguably the best Test all-rounder in world cricket, across all formats. And Kohli thinks Pandya can emulate Stokes in the future. Can he? Could he? Will he?
“When you play away from home, one guy [the all-rounder] gives you a lot of balance, and I think Hardik can be that guy going ahead, especially playing so much cricket away from home.
“If he grows in confidence – you see someone like Ben Stokes, what he does for England. An all-rounder brings great balance and I see no reason why Hardik Pandya can’t become that for India,” said Kohli.
While Pandya had his feet up after playing his maiden Test in Sri Lanka, Stokes delivered a Man-of-the-Match performance against South Africa, with his century turning the match in the hosts’ favour at the Oval. The Durham man claimed three wickets too and always seems to be involved in the key moments.
It’s too early to say whether Pandya can mirror Stokes in the coming years, but with continued backing from Kohli, there’s no reason why he can’t prove to be just as effective if he nails down that berth.
Stokes’ dogged approach has been key in sky-rocketing his stature and as for Pandya, we’ll have to wait and see as to what really drives him. Only time will tell.