MEMO TO Colin Graves and Geoffrey Boycott.
“Next time, chaps, please keep quiet. Unfortunately, these pesky West Indians have a habit of using your words as motivation. You know it makes sense.”
Joking aside – for if you cannot employ a little levity in such circumstances, when can you? – the West Indies are a dangerous animal when their pride has been wounded.
Tony Greig discovered that in 1976. Before the series the England captain had pledged to “make them grovel”.
A humiliating 3-0 defeat later, on the back of 829 runs for Viv Richards and 28 wickets apiece for Michael Holding and Andy Roberts, and it was Greig who was grovelling after making what he conceded was “a silly statement”.
The words of Graves and Boycott were not silly – although Graves’s remark that the West Indies were “mediocre” prior to a 2015 series that finished 1-1 and cost coach Peter Moores his job was deemed naive from a man about to take charge of the England and Wales Cricket Board.
At the same time, Graves, the former Yorkshire chairman, is barely less renowned for his blunt, forthright pronouncements than Boycott, who wrote before the Barbados Test that ended in a 381-run defeat for England on Saturday that the West Indies have some “very ordinary, average cricketers” and predicted that Joe Root’s men would be “far too good”.
He had said something similar prior to the Headingley Test in 2017 when the West Indies’ five-wicket victory sent shockwaves from Leeds to the Leeward Islands.
It beggared belief, in the first place, how well they played – the product, no doubt, of the enduringly unpredictable nature of sport, but also of the way that a new guard is taking shape under captain Jason Holder, who has a fresh, vibrant collective after so many established stars jumped ship in pursuit of T20 riches.Chris Waters
Unfortunately, as this correspondent knows only too well, nothing ages more quickly than newspaper opinion (tomorrow’s fish and chip paper, as the saying goes), and the gory details of England’s evisceration at Kensington Oval are by now as well-known to cricket lovers as the gory exploits of Jack The Ripper to the wider public.
But Boycott – as with Graves before him – was merely spelling out the truth, which is that England, ranked third in the world, should indeed have been “far too good” for a side ranked eighth, with only Bangladesh and Zimbabwe below them and with the glory days of Viv Richards et al a paling memory.
So much so, perhaps the first question as we seek to make sense of it all before the second Test starts in Antigua on Thursday is not so much why England were so bad as how come the West Indies were so good?
Had they undergone some sort of secret, magical transformation in between losing their previous four Tests, having now gone seven years without a series win over a leading Test nation?
It beggared belief, in the first place, how well they played – the product, no doubt, of the enduringly unpredictable nature of sport, but also of the way that a new guard is taking shape under captain Jason Holder, who has a fresh, vibrant collective after so many established stars jumped ship in pursuit of T20 riches.
Indeed, it is said by those who measure such things, that the West Indies’ players are now 35 per cent fitter than they were a year ago after Cricket West Indies introduced a new minimum fitness requirement for contracted cricketers, and there is a more professional outlook starting to emerge.
That the naked talent exists was evidenced by the performances in Barbados of such as Shimron Hetmyer and Holder himself, with Shannon Gabriel, in particular, possessing plenty of pace to rough up opponents – not least Root, who was strikingly discombobulated by a barrage of short stuff that will no doubt be filed away in memory banks.
It was not pace that did for England on Saturday, however, but spin – or, to put it more accurately, non-spin.
Roston Chase, who took 8-60 to bowl out England for 246 in pursuit of a mockingly unachievable 628, simply bowled slow balls to which England’s batsmen simply kept getting out, his figures representing a remarkable return for a part-time spinner who had a Test bowling average of 47.
To some extent England’s second innings demise could be explained by the term ‘scoreboard pressure’, and the fact that their bowlers and fielders had spent an unwanted amount of time in the sun, with the consequent toll on bodies and minds.
But it also belied a worrying lack of technique and, in some cases, fight; not even the minimum requirement of an over-my-dead-body rearguard cheered the legions of English supporters – witness the stroke of Moeen Ali, for example, a feeble flick to second slip off Chase.
Clearly there are issues that need to be addressed.
Neither Rory Burns, despite his top-score of 84, nor, more obviously, Keaton Jennings have yet proved that they are long-term solutions as opening batsmen.
Jonny Bairstow’s best position is surely not at No 3 and, as this correspondent has repeatedly suggested, it was possibly premature to take the gloves off him, with Ben Foakes as yet unproven with the bat against a top Test team and because Foakes’s presence unbalances the side.
Indeed, there would have been no argument as to whether Stuart Broad or Sam Curran should have played in Barbados had England not diverted from the template that allowed them to play four seamers and two spinners prior to Foakes, because both could then have played – a template which saw them beat India last year.
Foakes has done nothing wrong and a good deal right, but England, to these eyes, are not playing to their collective strength, which also includes a batsman in Jason Roy who is not even on the tour.
With hindsight, England, who suffered from the usual lack of proper warm-up preparation, misread the Barbados pitch and got their team selection wrong, but that cannot explain the extent of defeat.
Many a captain has made the wrong call, and at least Root had the courage of his convictions to act on gut instinct; one would rather that, surely, than sheepish acquiescence or any tendency to play it safe.
Going into Antigua, history tells us that England are as likely to bounce back as not, and it is as well to remember that they had won eight of nine Tests prior to Barbados.
However, they will beware a West Indies’ team seemingly determined to shed the mediocre tag once and for all and to ram words -– however ostensibly correct – back down the throats from whence they came.