My Ukrainian friend came round my flat to watch the football on Wednesday. His interest in cricket is passing at best (but he is a sucker for football). At half-time I flicked over to check the West Indies-Zimbabwe score. Shane Shillingford was snaffling a couple of wickets a few overs from the end of play. The next day, Shillingford would go on to feature prominently as the Zimbabweans were bowled out for a paltry 107, thus surrendering the Test in just over seven sessions of play.
Watching the ball fizzing dangerously toward the Zimbabweans, I realised how often I’ve witnessed teams being spun out in the Caribbean Islands over the last two years. The pitch in Barbados was a fantastic cricket wicket as it had plenty of bounce and pace, with a wickedly fast outfield. But by the second day, the ball was gripping and garnering appreciable turn, especially for a second day wicket.
Now back to my Ukrainian friend, remember he knows next to nothing about cricket…
We got talking about the West Indies; I explained to him that they were ranked seventh in the World (out of ten), which was some surprise to him as his limited knowledge of the sport effectively amounted to: West Indies = Good.
This is a fairly sound view to have if your interest is passing. The West Indies dominated the sport between 1976-’95 and throughout the preceding, post-war decades could lay claim to several of the greatest players ever (Garfield Sobers, Wes Hall etc.). The West Indian’s conquering of all cricketing nations for twenty years, remains such an important and noticeable achievement because of its socio-political connotations (the historical links between the Caribbean and European slavery, and cricket as the quintessential English, colonial game), and also for the flamboyant and irresistible manner in which they reached the summit and remained there for so long.
Holding, Roberts, Garner, Marshall, Ambrose, Walsh, Patterson, Moseley, Clarke, these are just some of the names that plagued batsmen’s dreams for twenty five years. If you know two things about cricket, they are likely to be about the Ashes and the seven foot West Indian, 95mph an hour demons that bruised and broke bodies worldwide.
But has that changed? Look at the West Indian squad now and you see several international class spin bowlers: Shane Shillingford, Sunil Narine, Devendra Bishoo and Veerasammy Permaul. Bishoo and Narine won the ICC Emerging Talent award in 2011 and 2012; these bowlers are clearly talented, gifted craftsmen.
The pitches they play on now, as ably displayed by the strip in Barbados, are suited to spin. They carry bounce, pace and most importantly, nearly always break up by the fourth and fifth days. Perhaps unlike the English, South Africans and Australians, the groundsmen who tender the pitches throughout the West Indies do not quite have the funding to craft tracks that could last five thousand days; as such, they offer much to the spin bowler.
Over the last two years, a third of the wickets taken by the West Indies (on home soil) have fallen to spin. In their past two (home) series’, spin has taken 42 of the 94 wickets claimed, at an appreciable average of 27.9. These statistics are remarkable, especially for a side that often went into Tests with only Viv Richards or Carl Hooper’s casual off spin in support of four quicks.
With the re-emergence of Tino Best and Fidel Edwards, alongside the rise of Kemar Roach and the promising Gabriel, one could argue West Indies’ bowling stocks all round have been bolstered impressively. They have. The West Indies can even afford to leave out Bishoo (the most promising leg spinner in World cricket) and Narine (the most promising spinner in World cricket) in the hopes that these two vastly talented men can perfect their game in the regional tournaments.
No team in cricket can boast of four Test worthy spinners. India have Ojha, Ashwin and Harbhajan; England, Swann and Panesar; Pakistan, Ajmal and Rehman. Each of the West Indies’ four spinners have taken Test five-fors: no other nation can lay claim to have the same number, in their prime and available for selection.
The West Indies really are the most exciting prospect in Test cricket; they are crafting a squad which could have them climbing the rankings ladder far sooner than some might imagine.