England’s test series against the Windies starts on Wednesday, so it’s time to invoke the spirit of Tony Greig and Colin Graves by making some ill thought through predictions. Surely we can’t lose to this ‘mediocre’ lot? Let’s make them, erm, wobble.
However, although over-confidence has proved England’s demise in the Caribbean before – don’t forgot we’ve only ever beaten the Windies away from home once in recent times – there’s good reason to think England can actually back up their supporters’ confidence this time. Why? Because they won’t be using a Kookaburra ball. The Windies have decided to use a Dukes variety that’s likely to stay harder for longer and swing consistently.
What’s more, the pitches aren’t likely to be slow this time either. The WI board has requested pitches with some pace and life. Jimmy and Stu pot will be licking their lips. A few months ago most observers expected England to endure a trial by spin on slow low turners – the type of conditions which completely exposed The Lions. But apparently the WI board would prefer to see some entertaining cricket this time than home victories.
One has to commend the WI board for taking this approach. It might not endear them much to the home supporters – many of whom objected to the appointment of Richard Pybus as coach – but it’s probably the right thing for West Indies cricket (and test cricket in general).
It always feels odd when the Windies triumph on lifeless pitches with crafty spinners. The spirit of West Indies cricket resides in carnival cricket and chin music. And that’s only possible on pitches with copious carry. If the board want the public to fall in love with the sport again then boring attritional cricket isn’t going to cut it. The Windies need to capture imaginations as well as occasional victories.
So how do the teams compare on paper? Although England have quite a few holes they also possess the best individual cricketers in my humble opinion. The Windies would kill for a Joe Root, a Ben Stokes, a Jimmy Anderson, or a even a Jonny Bairstow. And for that reason alone I expect England to win.
The West Indies team includes some very talented players but overall it lacks class. This might sounds harsh but statistically it’s true. England supporters know all about Shai Hope – he scored a brilliant hundred against us in 2017 – but he’s yet to fulfil his potential and still averages less than 30 in tests. It’s a staggering statistic for a player of his ability.
What’s more, the quality of players brought into the Windies squad for this series suggests that their cupboard is still pretty bare. John Campbell barely averages over 30 in first class cricket, and Shamrah Brooks is a journeyman with another very underwhelming record (although his domestic form has improved of late). It’s very hard to see these guys making much of an impact if England bowl well.
This is why the return of Darren Bravo, who does possess a touch of class, is so important for this series. Here’s a man who actually averages 40 in test cricket. He’s a proper test player rather than a young hopeful (or even an ageing hopeful). His presence makes the Windies batting look so much better.
If Bravo can score runs and the admirable Kraigg Brathwaite can knuckle down and occupy the crease for long periods (which he’s done against England before) then the Windies might be able to post some competitive scores. One imagines these guys will be absolutely key. If they can lay a platform then it might give Hope and youngsters like Shimon Hetmyer a chance to shine. Then there’s the keeper Shane Dowrich who can make useful contributions down the order.
The problem, of course, is that England’s bowlers are demonstrably better (not to mention more experienced) than the West Indies’ batsmen. And this is especially true when they’ve got a Duke in their hand. Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad looked in good rhythm in the warm-up exercises (I won’t go as far as calling them warm-up ‘games’), and Ben Stokes has always been a wicket-taker. England must be in good shape if they can afford to leave out Chris Woakes, who has always been good when armed with a Duke.
But what about England’s batsmen? Everyone knows they’re far from perfect. However, I do expect them to score enough runs to win the series – if only because we bat so deep. Kemar Roach and Shannon Gabriel are good bowlers, and I expect them to put our top order under pressure, but they can’t bowl all day. In fact, the bowler I was most worried about pre-series was the spinner Jomel Warrican – the man who tied The Lions in knots. The problem is that the surfaces might not suit him. I guess we’ll see.
The Windies’ other bowling options include Roston Chase, the journeyman all-rounder who rarely tears up trees, and young paceman Alzarri Joseph who is returning from a serious back injury. Joseph has been named in the squad even though nobody knows if he’s fit enough to play (which seems a bit bizarre). If he’s ruled out then the exciting Oshane Thomas, who is reportedly quite rapid, will play instead.
Have these guys got talent? Yes they have. But they’re hardly Starc, Hazlewood or Cummins. One expects that Jason Holder will need to be at his containing best if the Windies want to take 20 wickets. I expect they’ll have their moments (particularly when Keaton Jennings is at the crease, ahem) but they may struggle to land a knock-out blow. One suspects they’ll they’ll get all excited when they reduce us to 100-4, but end up scratching their heads as we somehow cobble together 350 all out. They might even think we’ve deliberately reversed the batting order just to troll them.
Personally I think this should be an interesting series. There’s a decent prize on offer for England as we haven’t won a series in the Windies since 2004, and we’re just about equipped to do the job this time. What’s more, the Windies might be motivated after their 2-0 thrashing in Bangladesh just before Christmas – although one can never tell just how motivated their cricketers really are. There’s always bloody politics to contend with in the Caribbean.
How the Windies respond to Pybus could be the crucial factor here. He wasn’t exactly a popular choice in many quarters. Former captain Darren Sammy and the legendary Desmond Haynes have all criticised his return. As someone who has always admired Stuart Law I think it’s a shame he’s no longer in situ. Law knows English cricket well so he might have given the home team an advantage they no longer possess.
Talking of Aussies many will see this series as preparation for The Ashes. And that’s another reason why I’m encouraged they’ll be using a Duke (albeit not the same one they use in England). A winter in Sri Lanka followed by a series on slow turners in the Caribbean wouldn’t have told us much at all. The prospect of something spicier means we may learn a bit more about the likes of Burns and Buttler.
I’m really looking forward to seeing what Burns can do in this series. The conditions should suit him a little better than they did in Sri Lanka. I’m also hopeful that Jonny Bairstow can emerge as a legitimate No.3 because heaven knows England need one. Although I think he’s more of a natural middle-order player (the ideal six) I do think he’s talented enough to prove me wrong.
It will also be interesting to see whether Jos Buttler bats at 5 or 6, and whether Ben Foakes continues to score runs. If things go wrong for England I worry that Foakes may be the first casualty. After all, some people are bound to question whether England really need three wicket keepers in the XI! The fact that Foakes is by far the best gloveman may become irrelevant if England sense the opportunity to squeeze in another all-rounder.