All hail Jason Holder for his splendid, maiden Test and first-class century today!
The 23-year-old Barbadian made the region extremely proud with a fighting, elegant, unbeaten 103, which helped West Indies to a memorable draw against England in the first Test at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium in Antigua. It fittingly earned him the man-of-the-match award.
And Phil Simmons must be a most relieved man. Going into the fifth and final day’s play, the new West Indies head coach was talking optimistically of a likely West Indies win.
With the home team resuming on 98 for two after they were set 438 for victory, Simmons’ comment was extremely bold with a touch of arrogance about it.
“We are a team that scores quickly. We’ll assess what we need in every session and make a decision whether to go for it at tea,” Simmons said.
“The first hour will be important. We need to not lose any wickets in the first hour. But with me it’s always a case of looking how you can get the runs before you look at how you can save it,” he added.
As a former West Indies batsman who played the majority of his 26 Tests in an era when West Indies were world champions, Simmons knew of the high quality of play and capabilities of his team-mates then.
And while it can be argued that West Indies boast of the world record for achieving the highest run chase in Tests –– 418 against Australia in the fourth and final match at the Antigua Recreation Ground in 2003 when they triumphed by three wickets –– (Australia won the series 3-1) the state of that game in terms of time was quite different.
Both Australia and West Indies scored 240 all out in their first innings and the West Indies’ victory chase started late on the third day which they closed on 47 without loss.
Buoyed by centuries from Ramnaresh Sarwan (105) and Shivnarine Chanderpaul, West Indies reached 371 for six at the end of the fourth day and even though Chanderpaul fell early on the final day for 104 (adding just one), Omari Banks (47 not out) and Vasbert Drakes (27 not out) batted with level heads in an unbroken eighth wicket stand of 46 to take West Indies home.
Of the current side, Chanderpaul and opener Devon Smith also played in that match.
Now, for all of the talk about the pitch being placid and “easy” for batting, the temperament of the West Indies batsmen was sure to be brought into sharp focus today.
After the first 45 minutes’ play, Smith, who had fought his way to 59 not out by stumps on the fourth day, gifted his wicket by driving off-spinner James Tredwell into the hands of mid-on, having added just three.
Eleven minutes later, his overnight partner Marlon Samuels, driving loosely at one wide of the off stump from fast bowler Jimmy Anderson, was snapped up low at gully and after the first hour, the score was 127 for four.
At lunch, West Indies had limped to 162 for five off 71 overs, having also lost the vital scalp of Chanderpaul, leg before wicket by occasional off-spinner Joe Root for 13 as he pushed forward.
Jermaine Blackwood, who scored a fine, unbeaten 112 in the first innings –– his maiden Test century –– was on 19 with skipper Denesh Ramdin on four.
It, therefore, meant that 64 runs were scored off 31 overs for the loss of three wickets in the session.
Samuels made 23, having resumed on two. Here is a player whose ability to score freely is well known. But loose strokes and a lack of tactical awareness have also resulted in his downfall at crucial stages. Twice in the space of four overs, he used his feet to hit Tredwell over the top for sixes and was mis-stumped immediately after the second as he went down the pitch again.
Now in his 56th Test since making his debut way back in late 2000, Samuels must understand that in the top six of the batting, apart from Chanderpaul, a veteran of 162 Tests, he has to be far more responsible.
As one further assesses Simmons’ remarks at the end of the fourth day, it would have been better to hear him say initially that the West Indies’ main focus would be to bat session by session and play balls on merit with the ultimate goal of saving the match.
West Indies teams of the current era do not have the guts, determination and skill to create the sort of miracle Simmons was hoping for.
Perhaps Simmons needs to be reminded of what the West Indies chairman of selectors Clive Lloyd said a few months ago when he called on the batsmen to “bat long and ugly”. After all, Test cricket is still about endurance.
Half-an-hour after lunch, Blackwood charged down the pitch, swung and edged a catch to the ‘keeper off pacer Christopher Jordan, having faced 61 balls for 31.
So at 189 for six and with their backs against the wall, Holder strode to the crease. Not surprisingly, a radio commentator could not help but remind all and sundry that “Holder can bat, you know”.
And the debate over whether Holder is a batting or bowling all-rounder was certain to surface again as well. It would be so wonderful if he were allowed to settle down and concentrate on his all-round game. He is picked mainly as a pace bowler. Gosh! This is only his fourth Test.
If Holder consistently scores half-centuries and hopefully hundreds as well at No. 8, it would be a big plus for West Indies. But he must also take wickets on a regular basis to gain the tag of a genuine all-rounder.
At tea, he had batted intelligently as West Indies moved to 268 for six off 99 overs with both Ramdin and Holder on 48 and the stand then worth 79 in 19.5 overs.
Certainly at that stage with 170 runs needed for victory and four wickets in hand, the discussion in the West Indies dressing room must have been to continue batting positively, mindful that the target was too steep. Hence, play for a draw.
Ramdin and Holder added 105 in 32.1 overs before Anderson produced a wonderful leg-cutter which Ramdin (57) edged to a gleeful Alastair Cook at first slip, thus becoming England’s leading Test wicket-taker with 384, fittingly in his 100th Test. That the previous holder, the great all-rounder Sir Ian Botham, was present as a television commentator and warmly applauded made the moment a touching one.
When the last 15 overs started, West Indies were 302 for seven with Holder on 66 and another Barbadian, Kemar Roach, four.
The pair batted defiantly and with cool heads, putting on 56 in 75 minutes off 18.2 overs in their unfinished stand as West Indies fought to 350 for seven off 129.4 overs.
Holder’s century came off 146 balls with 15 fours, in the penultimate over of the match, while Roach scored 15 not out off 55 balls. All told, Holder batted for 216 minutes and faced 149 balls.
There was another quote from Simmons after the fourth day’s play, which was noteworthy. “I have learned a lot. There is ability and there is character. We fought back on the second morning, so there are positives to take from this Test,” he said.
No one doubts the ability but character must be exhibited on a much more constant basis. From a batting perspective, Blackwood stood out in the first innings and Ramdin and Holder combined at a crucial stage today, followed by Holder and Roach.
The make-up of the bowling attack also came under the microscope with only four specialists in pacers Jerome Taylor, Roach and Holder, plus left-arm spinner Sulieman Benn.
Killer instinct was lacking after England were reduced to 34 for three on the opening day and closed on 341 for five, thanks mainly to Ian Bell’s 143 and solid knocks from Joe Root (83) and Ben Stokes, 71 not out, before he fell for 79.
West Indies fought back to dismiss England for 399 before they were bowled out for 295 after being 276 for six.
Again in the second innings, they made early inroads with England on 52 for three but left-hander Gary Balance hit a solid 122 and England pressed home their advantage as Root and Josh Butler contributed 59 each, the latter being unbeaten in a total of 333 for seven declared.
It was a wonderful effort by West Indies to draw this Test. Now we look forward with even more interest to the remaining two matches in Grenada and Barbados.
Keith Holder is a veteran, award-winning freelance sports journalist, who has been covering local, regional and international cricket since 1980 as a writer and commentator. He has compiled statistics on the Barbados Cricket Association (BCA) Division 1 (now Elite) championship for over three decades and is responsible for editing the BCA website (www.bcacricket.org). Holder is also the host of the cricket Talk Show, Mid Wicket, on the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation 100.7 FM on Tuesday nights. Email: Keithfholder@gmail.com.