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How the Effects of Covid-19 Made The West Indies’ Test Team Better
Garfield Robinson on how the West Indies' may have benefitted serendipitously from the pandemic
Given the seriousness of the Covid-19 pandemic, members of the West Indies men’s squad were offered the option of missing the tour to England in addition to those to New Zealand and Bangladesh that followed. A number of first-choice players — many of whom were brave pioneers of cricket teams touring in strict bio-secure bubbles — chose to exercise that right, especially for the visit to Bangladesh. This forced the selectors to look at others who occupied the fringes.
The first Test in Bangladesh saw the appointment of a new captain in Kraigg Brathwaite and three players — Shayne Mosely, Kyle Mayers, and Nkrumah Bonner — making their debuts. Wicket-keeper-bat Joshua Da Silva was playing in only his second Test. Bangladesh is often a challenging tour, even for some of the game’s best sides. Most Caribbean cricket fans, therefore, weren’t too optimistic about their team’s chances.
Yet, the absence of some senior players opened up opportunities for the fringe players who accepted the risks of touring — opportunities which some of them grabbed with both hands.
As in life, sport is replete with stories of persons rising to prominence when fate dealt them an unexpected opening. Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas was a promising college player, who was drafted in 1956 by the Pittsburg Steelers only to be cut before the season even began. He proceeded to work in construction, playing only on the weekends for a mere six dollars a game before he was asked to try out for the Colts, and was subsequently signed. He only saw serious action after the first-choice quarterback suffered a broken leg in one game. Unitas had a challenging first game but soon improved to the point where he led the NFL in passing yards and touchdown passes in 1957, earning the Jim Thorpe Trophy as the league’s Most Valuable Player.
Closer to home, Marnus Labuschagne cemented his place in Australia’s Test line-up after walking in as a concussion substitute for champion batsman Steve Smith, who was struck down by a searing Jofra Archer bouncer at Lords. Labuschagne scored 59 in that innings and completed four centuries in five games in series against Pakistan and New Zealand that followed. Prior to Lords, his first-class average stood in the 30s. Now, after 18 test matches, he boasts an average of 60.81.
Similarly, Barbadian batsman Kyle Mayers stunned the cricket world in February when he stroked his way to an unbeaten 210 to lead the West Indies to victory in the first Test of the Bangladesh series in Chattogram. The Caribbean side scored the 395 required for victory with three wickets to spare, thanks mainly to the skill and audacity of Mayers’ strokeplay. The left-hander performed better than anyone could have reasonably expected given his then mid-20s first-class average. One noticeable feature of his batting was an uncanny ability to pierce the infield, in a manner somewhat reminiscent of one Brian Charles Lara.
Keeping Mayers company during much of that innings was Nkrumah Bonner. The Jamaican had been languishing in first-class cricket for over 10 years, offering only sporadic hints that he belonged at the highest level. He is an elegant and judicious strokeplayer who finally transcended mediocrity during the 2019/20 regional first-class season. In 13 innings he averaged 58.11 — comfortably more than he did in any season prior — on the back of a promising 2018/19 season, where he averaged 44.25 from four innings.
He made 86 in that first test in Chattogram, then 90 in the following game at Dhaka, before compiling a match-saving Test hundred during the first Test of Sri Lanka’s Caribbean visit.
It is still early days but the addition of Mayers and Bonner appears to have strengthened the West Indies’ middle order. Jermaine Blackwood should probably be added to that equation too, because he returned to the team in England with a match-winning 95, and had good scores on tours of New Zealand and Bangladesh. He faltered against Sri Lanka but has shown he has the qualities necessary to thrive in Test Cricket if he chooses to be more circumspect in his shot selection. He too might not have gotten another opportunity were all the incumbents available.
The success of Mayers and Bonner, and the all-round growth of Rakheem Cornwall will make it hard for Darren Bravo, Shamarh Brooks, and Roston Chase to get back into contention with the latter two being recently stripped of their retainer contracts. The problem they face is that their performances, for the most part, have been spotty, while those who replaced them have, so far at least, shown a greater level of consistency.
Chase has averaged 23.22 in his last 15 Tests. Brooks has an average of 28.11 in the eight Tests he’s played. Bravo, in seven games since his return to the team, has a paltry 11.5 average. Consider also, that of the 20 series that have seen the lowest averages of batsmen from one to three in the West Indies order, 10 have occurred in the last six years.
When Jason Holder decided not to travel to Bangladesh, the selectors turned to Kraigg Brathwaite, even though the Barbadian opener was recently replaced as vice-captain by Roston Chase, who also chose not to tour. Brathwaite, however, appeared to be more innovative than his predecessor, less willing to allow a game to just drift along, more willing to shift his bowlers around, and more willing to set attacking fields, especially to batters who were new to the crease. He lacked runs as an opener but his performance as leader sparked a clamor for his permanent installation to the position, one eventually supported by none other than former West Indies captain Clive Lloyd, the man responsible for Holder’s appointment aged 23.
All of this means that the West Indies Test team is now substantially different from what it was a year ago — different and likely stronger. A more capable tactician is donning the proverbial captain’s armband, and there appears now to be a real spine to what used to be a relatively brittle middle order. The West Indies test team isn’t the finished article, but they are an improving unit that could get even better with a few more tweaks.
Covid-19 has surely exacted a terrible toll. But good sometimes comes from evil, and the West Indies might have benefitted serendipitously from the pandemic.