“Winter is coming,” is a regular refrain in the critically acclaimed and very popular television series Game of Thrones. Winter is not just winter as we know it. It is a time of darkness, of death, and destruction all round.
Every winter also brings the possibility of another “long night,” a particularly harsh winter thousands of years prior that lasted over a generation, “when children were born and lived and died, all in darkness…
when Kings froze to death in their castles, same as the shepherds in their huts.” Winter in Westeros (the fictional continent in Game of Thrones) comes fraught with dread and despair, and with no certainty of survival.
Windies cricket has been going through a protracted miserable period – a long winter, if you will, where they move from crisis to crisis and from loss to embarrassing loss. A period in which a number of players joined the team and had reasonably long careers without experiencing any reasonable run of success. A period marked by acrimony between the senior players and the authorities, that manifested itself in public spats, court cases, and even an abandoned tour. And the innings and 209-run defeat in the first Test at Birmingham was as low a point as any in the last two decades. It was an insipid display for which they were rightly and universally lambasted.
One question frequently asked over recent years is this: Will Windies cricket ever be able to dig themselves from out of the deep dark hole into which they had descended?
Well, after this latest, stunning, almost unbelievable five-wicket win at Headingley, the answer to that question must be a resounding ‘yes’. This one display does not mean they have suddenly become world beaters. But it shows they have the capacity to be competitive at the highest level.
It had been seventeen years since the Caribbean side last won a Test in England and nobody, save for captain Jason Holder – if what he told Michael Atherton at the presentation ceremony is to be believed – thought they’d have been able to so dramatically turn things around when they arrived at Leeds.
Save for the poor catching, which also seems to have infected the England team, this was a different Windies team. The bowlers, for the most part, bowled with accuracy and purpose, and Shannon Gabriel, who missed the first Test, injected some well-needed pace into the attack.
The batting was simply outstanding. Kraigg Brathwaite and Shai Hope were the stars but very useful contributions also came from Jermaine Blackwood, Roston Chase and [Holder].
We all knew what Brathwaite could do. He has shown his pedigree before, such as in November 2016 when he led West Indies to a five-wicket victory over Pakistan in Sharjah with undefeated knocks of 142 in the first innings and 60 in the second. Shai Hope, though, was a revelation. It was apparent he could play, but nobody expected him to become the only player to score hundreds in both innings in the 127-year history of first-class cricket at Headingley.
He and Brathwaite collaborated for all of 390 runs in the game, 246 in the first innings and 144 in the second. Their partnerships were refreshing, regenerating and carried out with no little skill. Their first innings effort would have jolted Windies cricket fans, who had not experienced batting like that in a long time, perhaps not since Brian Lara and Jimmy Adams defied the Australian bowling attack for a whole day at Sabina Park in 1999.
The early period of the first-innings union was difficult. The ball moved and bounced. They played and missed on occasion. Yet, both exhibited proficiency and patience in negotiating the movement and in putting away the bad ball. And not to be hard on Chase, but after Brathwaite departed he came in and soon fell to a bouncing, seaming delivery that pulled his blade like a magnet. It emphasized the discipline both batsmen exhibited in countering similar deliveries during their long partnership.
More than just the magnitude and manner of the runs scored was the signal the performance sent and the lessons it taught. The two Barbadians thrived in alien conditions against two of the best seam and swing bowlers in the world. “What man has done man can do” the saying goes. Brathwaite’s and Hope’s partnership showed a team and a region, whose cricket has largely been floundering, that there remains in the Caribbean talent capable of excelling even on very difficult testing grounds. “If these guys can do it,” the others should tell themselves, “so can we.”
This Windies team holds no terrors for any of the major Test sides. In a reversal of the way it was during the period of West Indies dominance, it is now the Englishmen that carry the weight of high expectations in this series. They were and probably still are the clear favourites. And not just win either, they were supposed to totally overwhelm a team mainly staffed by novices.
Prior to the first Test, nobody in the Windies squad had played as many as 40 Tests. In fact, Alastair Cook, Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow have played more Tests combined than the entire Windies squad. Additionally, only three members of the visiting squad, Kieran Powell, Kemar Roach, and Shannon Gabriel, had played Tests in England before. That this side sparked such a turnaround will be talked about for a long time.
After Birmingham many feared for the future of West Indies cricket. Not just West Indians either: “I really fear,” former England captain Michael Vaughan told BBC Test-match Special, “that this series could be one of the saddest for Test cricket.”
Peter Hayter, longtime English cricket writer had this to say by way of twitter: “Time was when pity was the last emotion you felt about West Indies. Respect, awe, joy, yes. Pity, never. How the mightiest fallen.”
Perhaps the Caribbean side is now beginning to pick themselves back up. They are current World T20 champions, but they have been abysmal in Tests and ODIs, even failing to qualify for the 2017 ICC Champions Trophy that took place in June. At Leeds they showed, over all five days, that they have the skill and fortitude to compete with the best.
They still have a far way to go. The catching, for example, has to improve, and the bowling will be in need of more depth and more bite. A reliable opening partner for Brathwaite is also a concern, as Powell, as talented as he seems to be, is yet to get himself in gear.
These shortcomings, however, can be overcome with time, if the team and the coaching staff and the cricketers back in the Caribbean are prepared to work hard at it. And far from us looking at the end of West Indies cricket as many feared, this ought to be a new beginning. If, as many appear to believe, West Indies cricket is important to world cricket then hopefully this is the breaking of the dawn, the melting of the snow. It is time for them to leave the darkness behind.
In a scene from the first episode of season seven of Game of Thrones, Archmaester Ebrose is trying to reassure his student Samuel Tarly that he need not be overly concerned about the perils of winter, that the world would survive despite the hardships.
“When Robert’s rebellion was raging, people thought the end was near, the end of the Targaryen dynasty; how will we survive? When Aegon Targaryen turned his eye westward and flew his dragons to Blackwater Rush, the end was near; how will we survive? And thousands of years before that, “during the long night, we can forgive them for thinking it truly was the end but it wasn’t – none of it was…and every winter that ever came has ended.”
West Indies cricket’s winter has lasted long enough. It is time it ended.