Ahead of the start of the first Test in Barbados on Wednesday, Sam Drury looks at how the Windies have fared since they last played England and how much of a threat they pose to Joe Root’s side…
England are preparing for three Test matches against the Windies and, coming off the back of a morale-boosting victory, go in as such overwhelming favourites that the focus from outside the dressing room is as much on who can cement their place in the XI for a fast-approaching Ashes series as the outcome of the series at hand.
If this is all sounding rather familiar, for an England cricket fan, it should. Swap Barbados for Birmingham and Joe Root’s side were in a near-identical position in the summer of 2017.
On that occasion, England did emerge victorious after comprehensive wins at Edgbaston and Lord’s. It was the second Test at Headingley that will live longest in the memory though as the Windies, written off and ridiculed after a heavy defeat in the first Test, chased down 322 in the fading light to complete a stunning victory late on day five.
The win, spearheaded by twin hundreds from 23-year-old Shai Hope, was held up as a sign of the talent the Windies still possessed and a platform from which they could build and re-establish themselves as a force to be reckoned with in world cricket.
“My grandson text me and asked if this the rebirth of West Indies cricket – and I hope it is,” Sir Ian Botham said after the game. “What Test cricket needs is a vibrant West Indian team. They bring everything – the colour, the party atmosphere.”
Seventeen months on though and Windies fans are still waiting for the party to start.
Defeat in England was followed by a narrow series win in Zimbabwe but since then their only Test series win came at home to Bangladesh last year, while they failed to win a match in New Zealand, India and, most recently, Bangladesh.
In total, the Windies have won just four of their 14 Tests since winning at Headingley, losing eight and drawing two. Hardly the record of a team reborn and on the rise.
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Meanwhile, the star of that win in Leeds, Hope, has thus far struggled to live up to the expectations that came with his match-winning performance. He averaged 87 in Zimbabwe, with a top-score of 90no, but in the Windies’ past five Test series he has mustered just a solitary half-century and averaged 9.75 in the defeat to Bangladesh before Christmas.
Where there is room for optimism is in Hope’s form on the white-ball leg of that tour, where he scored back-to-back unbeaten centuries to end the ODI series and added another fifty and averaged 38 in the T20s that followed.
Stuart Law left his position as Windies head coach in December and believes Hope is reaching a position where he can begin to make the most of his talent and thinks the Windies have the players at their disposal to test England.
“They’ve got extreme pace; there are some kids who can crank it up to 90mph-plus,” he said.
“They’ve got some good, high-quality batsmen too – Shai Hope is just starting to understand the way he can play. Kraigg Brathwaite is a rock at the top of the order for them, so they are tough to beat in home conditions.”
That Brathwaite averaged 6.50 and 5.50 in the recent Test series in India and Bangladesh, respectively, will be a concern for the Windies but prior to that, he had proven himself to be a consistent run-scorer, averaging 50.25 in New Zealand and just shy of 80 in the home series against Bangladesh.
Add in the return of Darren Bravo, who boasts a Test average of 40, if Hope can deliver on his promise and Shane Dowrich and Shimron Hetmyer – both of whom have made valuable contributions in the past few series – are at their best then a fragile batting line-up suddenly looks that much sturdier.
With the ball, Shannon Gabriel and Kemar Roach are now experienced campaigners but still possess the pace and potency to cause England’s top-order problems. Jason Holder is a more than useful option as first or second change while Alzarri Joseph is something of a wildcard.
He has not played a Test since the Windies’ innings defeat at Edgbaston in 2017 but he has the capability to bowl in excess of 90mph and, if things click into place on any given day, could prove a handful.
Make no mistake, man-for-man this Windies side would likely struggle to match their predecessors of the early 2000s, let alone the all-conquering team of the 1980s, and if England are anywhere close to their best, they should have too much for their hosts.
However, they should not be written off, especially not in the Caribbean where England have won only one Test series in the past 50 years.
Suggestions of a bright new dawn for West Indies cricket after their win at Headingley may have been premature but it did show what they are capable of and you can bet that Root and co will not be taking the Windies lightly. It might be prudent for the rest of us to follow their lead.
Watch England’s tour of the Caribbean live on Sky Sports this winter, starting with the first Test in Barbados from Wednesday, January 23.
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