Underdogs rise from red-ball ruins

If you were born in the 1990s or later, you could be forgiven for thinking that West Indies cricket is a bit like the old Roman Empire. Those older than you will harp on about the glory that once was, but all you see now are the ruins. The team that didn’t lose a Test series between 1980 and 1995 have hardly won anything in the red-ball format in the new millennium. Two World Twenty20 titles (2012 and 2016) and a Champions Trophy (2004) sit uneasily alongside a Test tapestry that’s coming apart at the seams.

Since January 2001, the Windies have won just 29, and lost 84, of 157 Tests. Away from home, that record is even more pitiful. If you leave out victories in Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, the men from the Caribbean have won just two matches on the road. Prior to last week’s five-wicket win at Headingley, an unexpected triumph in Port Elizabeth in the Boxing Day Test of 2007 was their last.

Going into the match at the most quintessentially English of venues in Leeds, no one gave the West Indies a prayer. Since June 2000, when they won by an innings at Edgbaston, they had played 18 Tests in the British Isles, losing 15. They hadn’t come close to a win in well over a decade.

The first Test of this series was a three-day rout by England under lights at Edgbaston. On the final day, the West Indies lost 19 wickets, most of the batsmen lasting marginally longer than the time it would take to make a ham-and-cheese sandwich. It was embarrassing to watch, and it prompted calls from many quarters for cricket to consider two divisions to prevent such mismatches.

Those voices were a little less strident after the second day in Leeds, when Kraigg Brathwaite (24) and Shai Hope, a year younger, added 246 to put the Windies in charge.

Brathwaite, four years younger than Barbados’s famous export Rihanna, would sometimes sit on the nascent pop star’s lap on the school bus as she sought to protect him from bullying. Hope came into the game averaging 18.61 after 11 Tests. But for the West Indies Cricket Board’s (WICB) stubborn and self-defeating policy of alienating senior players, it’s doubtful he would have kept his place.

Brathwaite had made five centuries in his previous 38 Tests but was also a hesitant starter, having been dismissed for 20 or less in 36 innings. They were up against England’s Jimmy Anderson, master of swing, and Stuart Broad, the most devastating pace-bowling tandem England has possessed since Fred Trueman and Brian Statham in the 1950s.

On days three and four, England fought back. By the time they declared on the fourth evening, they were prohibitive favourites to win the match and series. Not many teams chase down 322 in bowler-friendly conditions. This West Indies side? Forget it.

But Jason Holder, who has shown commendable maturity in leading such a callow side in trying circumstances, believed. On the final morning, he sent his colleagues a text message. When they came out to bat, it was evident that the plan wasn’t focused on survival alone. If loose balls were on offer, they would be hit.

Again, it came down to Brathwaite and Hope. Brathwaite was dropped early and beaten often, but he showed tremendous poise to hold one end up. Hope came out with a fusillade of strokes, slowing down only when he got into the 60s, and realisation dawned that a famous Headingley heist to rival Ian Botham’s against Australia in 1981 was on the cards.

For those who have loved West Indies cricket for decades and seen it slowly unravel, it made for surreal viewing. Michael Holding, who used to be a columnist for Wisden India, replied with “And toes” when I sent him a “Fingers crossed!” message.

Later, when I asked him what it would mean to pull off a win, even as the cricket board’s energies were focused on the Caribbean Premier League, Holding, who has been one of the WICB’s biggest critics, said: 
“I care nothing about the WICB, but it would be good for the players.”

After Brathwaite departed, Jermaine Blackwood came in and smacked 41 off 45 balls, batting with an insouciance that masked the gravity of the situation. For Michael Holding, a fellow Jamaican, it was the ideal approach, ensuring that England’s bowlers couldn’t exert sustained pressure. There aren’t too many bowling plans you can make for someone who’s happy to clatter the new ball down to the sightscreen. Forget the coaching manual — this was the West Indian swagger of old.

The current England team is nowhere near as good, or as dominant, as the Australian side that Steve Waugh led at the turn of the century. But the manner in which Brathwaite and Hope went about blunting the threat posed by the skill of Anderson and Broad was reminiscent of the VVS Laxman-Rahul Dravid epic at Eden Gardens in 2001. By the end even Anderson, who has few peers when there’s movement on offer, looked resigned to defeat.

[Bangladesh defeated Australia on day four of their first Test, despite players having fewer opportunities in the long format, prompting calls for the ICC to widen Test cricket’s imprint. (Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)]

Less than a day later, Bangladesh’s cricketers scripted some history of their own at home. At one stage, with Australia on 158/2 in pursuit of 266, the visitors looked the likely winners. But Bangladesh had Shakib Al Hasan, whose first-innings 84 and five-wicket haul had put them in such a strong position. Shakib’s second five-for of the match included the wickets of both David Warner and Steve Smith and, despite a belligerent cameo from the wonderfully talented Pat Cummins, there was no repeat of the Bullring in 2011.

In a parallel universe, Bangladesh’s first Test win against Australia, in front of the delirious crowd at the Mirpur Stadium in Dhaka, might have been the Ash-and-Mash show.

Mohammad Ashraful was all of 17 when he made his Test debut at Colombo’s Sinhalese Sports Club Ground in Sri Lanka in September 2001. His brilliant second-innings century was one of the few consolations in an innings defeat.

Two months later, Mashrafe Mortaza took a four-wicket haul on his Test debut against Zimbabwe. Those two were at the vanguard of a new generation, handed the baton by those who had toiled to get Bangladesh to their first World Cup (1999) and Test status (2000).

South African fans might remember Ashraful for a dazzling stroke-filled innings in Guyana during the 2007 World Cup, when Graeme Smith’s side were ambushed on a treacle-slow pitch. Mortaza was the main strike bowler then, the man whose spell had nudged India towards the exit door earlier in the competition.

Ashraful had a diamonds-and-rust career, with the stellar moments coming far too infrequently. In 2013, when he was just 28, he was banned for his part in the Bangladesh Premier League fixing scandal. Allowed to play again last year, it’s doubtful whether he will ever represent the national side again.

Mortaza’s career has been tinged with pain, with multiple knee surgeries forcing him to leave Test cricket when he was just 26. He has led the limited-overs side with imagination and charisma, but it took Bangladesh years to find a replacement at Test level. But as much as this victory owed to those who went before, the main architect was an outsider.

Chandika Hathurusingha’s qualities as a coach were not always recognised in his native Sri Lanka, but he has transformed Bangladesh’s mindset with a combination of ruthlessness and sensitivity. Especially in spin-friendly conditions, they no longer play with the underdog’s mien. They go into games truly believing that they can win, and that conviction has now resulted in victories against England, Sri Lanka (away) and Australia.

Much of the alarmism about the future of Test cricket focuses on the handful of countries that are competitive in the format. But what Bangladesh and West Indies showed this week is the importance of opportunity. Their players don’t get the games that others do. Shakib, for example, has played just 50 Tests in more than a decade.

If the International Cricket Council is really serious about widening Test cricket’s imprint, such scheduling imbalances must be corrected. The West Indies and Bangladesh may get routed from time to time, but so do others. Giving up on them isn’t the answer. Instead of being entitled bullies, cricket’s powerful nations need to take a leaf out of Rihanna’s book.

Dileep Premachandran was editor-in-chief of Wisden India


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