Tour review

West Indies v England, 2018-19

George Dobell

Test matches (3): West Indies 2, England 1
One-day internationals (5): West Indies 2, England 2
Twenty20 internationals (3): West Indies 0, England 3

The pre-tour narrative was familiar. Caribbean cricket was in terminal decline, spectators were losing interest, the best players had other priorities. Memories of West Indies' glory days were not so much an inspiration to the modern generation as a yardstick against which they could only fail. The fire in Babylon had long since gone out. England would win with ease. By the time they flew home, having surrendered the Wisden Trophy and won only one of the three series - the Twenty20s, against an understrength side - there were grounds for a tentative belief that cricket in the Caribbean was enjoying a resurgence.

To see West Indies win a Test series on the basis of their pace bowling, to see the emergence of a new generation of stroke makers - among them Shimron Hetmyer, a gloriously uncomplicated talent with whom the world could fall in love - was to be reminded of another age. Any cricket lover, even the throngs of England supporters, could rejoice in that.

Perhaps we shouldn't have been surprised. England had won just one Test series in the West Indies in more than 50 years, under Michael Vaughan in 2003-04. And while Ashes tours have two or three first-class warm-up games, this had none. Still, that didn't stop bold predictions. Four years earlier, ECB chairman-elect Colin Graves had denounced West Indies as "mediocre" - a comment pinned to their dressing-room door as a motivational tool, before England were held to a 1-1 draw. This time, fellow Yorkshireman Geoff Boycott wrote in his newspaper column that England should be "far too good" for a team of "very ordinary, average cricketers".

To some extent, the confidence was understandable. West Indies hadn't won a Test series against anyone other than Bangladesh or Zimbabwe since beating New Zealand at home in 2012, and had slipped to eighth in the rankings; only once in the 21st century (at home, in 2008-09) had they won against England. They also had an interim head coach, Richard Pybus, who had not proved especially popular during a three-year stint as West Indies' director of cricket that ended in 2016, and who appeared to have been appointed by Cricket West Indies president Dave Cameron despite the reservations of Jimmy Adams, Pybus's successor. (By early April, Cameron was out of a job, while Pybus had resumed running the academy.)

England, meanwhile, had just completed a historic 3-0 whitewash in Sri Lanka, and were ranked third. Neither was there anything in the pair of two-day (non-first-class) warm-up games to suggest a shock. England twice overwhelmed a Board President's XI: in the first, the hosts lost 19 wickets for 203 runs on the second day, with Stuart Broad, operating off a shorter run-up, claiming a hat-trick. The only cloud on England's horizon was the return home of Warwickshire fast bowler Olly Stone because of a stress fracture in his lower back. But the games lacked intensity, and were played on painfully slow surfaces.

On the quicker tracks produced during the Test series, against more organised and motivated opponents, England were 2-0 down before they were able to adapt. That was, in part, reward for some brave decisions by West Indies. The former coaching regime, led by Stuart Law, wanted to play the Tests with a Kookaburra ball, on slow, low pitches, to negate the skill of England's experienced seam attack. They also favoured venues such as Guyana, which might have proved a little less comfortable for England's players, and would have attracted fewer travelling supporters, lessening the sense that the tourists were playing at home.

But all that was overruled by CWI chief executive Johnny Grave. He reasoned that West Indies would play more entertaining cricket on quicker surfaces and with a Dukes; an adaptation of the ball used in England, it retained its shape and shine. Grave hoped this might help coax back home supporters. The venues were largely decided by economics, with Caribbean governments bidding to host in the knowledge that England fans would come if the destinations were attractive. The three islands chosen for the Tests - Barbados, Antigua, St Lucia - really did represent something approaching paradise, and fans crossed the Atlantic in their thousands.

Most of all, there was the leadership of Jason Holder. An all-rounder good enough to win a place in the top ten of the ICC's bowling rankings, and score a series-defining double-century in the First Test in Barbados, his home island, he gave West Indies depth and balance, and was a wonderfully focused captain. It was no coincidence that, when he was suspended from the final Test because of a string of over-rate violations, they lost. Captaining this side through defeats and tribulations cannot have been easy, but he did it without complaint- and with calm authority. Comparisons with Clive Lloyd were inevitable but, when Holder reacted to news of South African fast bowler Duanne Olivier's Kolpak registration with Yorkshire by calling on the ICC and players' unions to introduce a global minimum wage, you wondered if he might develop into a statesman of Frank Worrell's stature. A future in leadership outside cricket would be no surprise.

The excellence of West Indies' seamers was a major theme of the Tests. Blessed with pace, skill and stamina, they were devastating, preying on a lineup that lacked the discipline to resist. Kemar Roach demonstrated his improved fitness, and won the series award after claiming 18 wickets at 13; Shannon Gabriel's figures - nine at 31 - did not reflect the hostility he generated or the pressure he built. Holder and Alzarri Joseph provided relentless support. Their batsmen were impressive, too. John Campbell and Kraigg Brathwaite became the first West Indian openers to add 50 or more four times in a seriessince Phil Simmons and Desmond Haynes in England in 1991, protecting their colleagues from the ball at its hardest and the bowlers at their freshest.

England's opening pair progressed beyond 35 just once, and their batsmen failed to reach 250 until the Third Test, by which time it was too late. And if their first-innings 77 in Barbados stood out, their second-innings 246 was arguably even more lamentable. To lose eight wickets against Roston Chase's tidy but unthreatening off-spin, on a pitch offering him nothing, represented a collapse as soft as any in recent years; Chase didn't take another wicket in the series, though he made a classy rearguard hundred in a lost cause in St Lucia. There was some mitigation for England's batting malaise. The bowlers benefited from helpful conditions, and the surface in Antigua - subsequently sanctioned by the ICC - was especially tough. Even so, totals of 187 and 132 did nothing to alter the suspicion that their batsmen lacked patience, and Joe Root raised eyebrows by suggesting "you don't win games by batting long periods of time". Yet Bravo and Co had won the Antigua Test by doing exactly that.

For England, by contrast, only Ben Stokes averaged over 30, and only Root - after 55 runs in his first five innings - scored a century. Before the tour was out, batting coach Mark Ramprakash was sacked. The tourists had little idea about their best side. Keaton Jennings was dropped for Antigua, then recalled for St Lucia, while Jonny Bairstow was restored to No. 7, only three Tests after making a century as the new No. 3, in Colombo. That meant his wicket keeping rival Ben Foakes, Player of the Series in Sri Lanka, had to be left out. Broad was omitted on a Barbados track that might have been made for him - England instead picked two spinners and three seamers - while Sam Curran's stock fell as his lack of pace was exposed. When Ashley Giles, the new director of the England men's teams, described the selection as "a bit funky", he didn't mean it as a compliment. And there was no sign that England were any closer to finding an opening pair - Rory Burns reached 30 once in six innings - or a permanent No. 3, despite Joe Denly's stylish 69 in St Lucia. Chris Woakes was not deemed fit for the Tests because of a long-standing knee problem.

The one-day series was dominated by the 39-year-old Chris Gayle. Having announced his intention to retire from the format after the World Cup, he hit 135, 50, 162 and 77, and batted as well as ever. He ate up many dot balls, could barely move between the wickets - 74% of his runs came from boundaries - and was a liability in the field, but his hitting was so devastating that he helped West Indies defy the gap in the rankings (first v ninth), and secure a 2-2 draw. His 39 sixes - a record in any series or tournament - came at a rate of one every eight deliveries.

England's batsmen enjoyed some good moments, too. Jos Buttler made a magnificent 150 in Grenada, while Eoin Morgan and Jason Roy also flourished, although Roy's tour was cut short by a hamstring strain and the impending birth of his first child. But when they were bowled out for 113 in the final game in St Lucia, England showed a familiar failure to adapt to anything other than perfect batting conditions.

It was the struggle of the bowlers, however, that rang alarm bells ahead of the World Cup. The pitches were flat, and the boundaries short, but too often they simply had no answer to Gayle. Inevitably, the clamour grew for the inclusion of the Barbados-born Jofra Archer, who qualified for selection shortly after the tour.

England clawed back some ground in the Twenty20s, skittling West Indies for 45 and 71.But there was a sense that the serious business had already taken place. England rested key players, while West Indies picked their one-day squad, with a view to the World Cup.

Those games did reinforce one impression. During the early days of the tour, England supporters outnumbered locals, yet the ratio changed as belief in the home side grew. With fast bowlers tearing in, fearless young batsmen making runs, and locals turning up to watch, it felt as if the embers of that fire in Babylon were starting to flame.

© John Wisden & Co