When does “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” drift into “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is a definition of insanity”?
It seems the West Indies cricketers were bent on pushing through that uncertain boundary as the historic bio-secure three-Test series unfolded in England last month.
Many reasons are being proposed for their failure to defend a surprise early lead. Consideration must be given to the unique circumstances of this campaign as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, but we can only speculate as to the impact this would have had on players’ morale. Let’s deal, though, with what is as plain as day.
Defending a 1-0 lead from the six-wicket win at Southampton, Jason Holder went against the grain of history in choosing to bowl first in the second Test at Old Trafford. Despite losing more than a day’s play to rain they succumbed by 113 runs.
He did the same thing four days later, a choice made all the more bewildering by selecting specialist spinner Rahkeem Cornwall in place of pacer Alzarri Joseph. There was even more rain in Manchester but the tourists weren’t going to let showers get in the way of an abject capitulation as they lasted just one ball more than 37 overs to lose the match by 269 runs on the final afternoon and surrender the Wisden Trophy for good.
Then there’s the issue of team selection.
It’s one thing to have faith in a player. At some point though, there must be the realisation that tough decisions occasionally have to be made. There was nothing to justify the retention of John Campbell and Shai Hope for the deciding Test other than the unfounded belief they would come good eventually.
On the bowling side, it must be noted that at no time during the three Test matches did it appear that any of the bowlers weren’t really trying. Still, this is where team management comes in by determining who is running out of gas and who, among the options waiting in the wings, deserves an opportunity.
Of course, it is not a straightforward thing but that is why Holder and head coach Phil Simmons are in the positions they hold. Look, this is not about being wise after the fact as all three issues were commented on extensively before a ball was bowled in the last two Tests.
But were we also guilty of expecting too much from this campaign?
Jermaine Blackwood and Holder, the batting and bowling stars of the first Test win, topped the batting and bowling series averages. That may sound commendable but it’s only when you go inside the numbers that you begin to realise that this West Indies team performed as well as it could, barring a Headingley-style bolt out of the blue.
Blackwood totalled 211 runs at an average of 35.16. By comparison, England’s top six all averaged over 40. Even if you remove the 83 and 73 averaged by Dom Bess and Stuart Broad respectively, which are aberrations based on the number of not outs, that still leaves Ben Stokes (90.75), Rory Burns (46.80), Dom Sibley (45.20) and Root (43.33) comfortably ahead of West Indies’ best batting performer.
Holder took ten wickets at 30.10 runs apiece. Once again, when you look at the corresponding England numbers they reveal a marked disparity with their top three performers with the ball—Broad, Stokes and Chris Woakes —taking a combined 36 wickets at a considerably lower average than Holder’s effort. Broad’s 16 victims in two matches took him past 500 Test wickets and came at a miserly 10.93 runs apiece. Stokes’ nine wickets cost 16.33 while Woakes’ 11 were at 16.63 per wicket.
These numbers reveal the gap in levels of performance between the best Englishmen and the best West Indians. You might want to argue whether the West Indies under-performed over the course of the three matches. They didn’t, at least not to any significant degree.
Before the first ball was bowled in the series, no-one averaged higher than the 34.80 of relative newcomer Shamarh Brooks, so they were always going to struggle with the bat. Much was made about the fast bowling attack with bowling coach Roddy Estwick going so far—way too far—as to compare them to the earlier great quartets.
All four—Kemar Roach, Shannon Gabriel, Holder and Joseph —produced numbers which were below their overall averages, although not by much. As stated before, they did try but generally lacked concerted firepower.
Without delving into speculation, it is clear that any serious expectation of the West Indies dominating England last month was, if not outright insanity, a journey into pure fantasy, as fanciful as the rhetoric leading up to the general election a week from today.