BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe – For the first time in some while, West Indies will enter a Test series with the title of firm favourites, when they take on minnows Zimbabwe in the opening Test of the two-match series tomorrow at Queens Sports Club.
Though the Caribbean side’s Test record in recent years has been dodgy at best, Zimbabwe’s has been even worse, without a Test win in nearly four years in nine outings.
In addition, they have failed to beat West Indies in eight previous meetings – losing six and drawing two – and were easily brushed side the last time the two teams met in the Caribbean in a two-match series five years ago.
Despite those damning statistics, however, West Indies captain Jason Holder said his side were anticipating a stiff challenge from the hosts and would be taking nothing for granted.
“We expect a really good competition from these guys. They are obviously fresh now back onto the Test circuit …,” Holder told a media conference today.
“Last year when we came here they looked a really good side, a very professional unit and we expect nothing different from them in this Test series. They would have boosted their side with Brendan Taylor and Kyle Jarvis coming back, and they are two key guys for them going forward.
“So it should be a good contest. We expect a really good competition.”
West Indies will be full of confidence, especially coming off an England tour where they managed – against all odds – to take a Test off the hosts in sensational circumstances at Headingley last August.
And while they lost the three-Test series, 2-1, they made strides and displayed the makings of a potentially strong side with the ability to challenge the major Test-playing nations.
More importantly, after a period where they failed to win any of 11 Tests in a 14-month spell between 2015 and 2016 – while losing eight – West Indies have now won a Test in each of their last three series against top-rated sides.
They stunned Pakistan in United Arab Emirates last November, beat them in the Caribbean in a return series earlier this year before producing their shock victory over England.
Holder said it was these small steps that were reasons for hope, despite the young, inexperienced nature of the squad.
“I reckon in the last year we’ve had, we’ve had a pretty reasonable year in terms of improvement,” said the 25-year-old all-rounder.
“The guys have really been getting attuned to Test cricket. We’ve done some really good things in the group, we’re still not the finished product but I think we’re headed in the right direction and I’m really happy with the progress the team is making.”
He added: “With a young, inexperienced side you have to be consistent [in selection]. You have to give guys as many opportunities as they possibly can. We will have failures, there will be inconsistencies but we’ve got to stick with a set of players who we feel can take us forward.
“Going forward we hope the guys can be a lot more consistent, solidify themselves in the team and keep moving forward as a unit.”
Progress has come in the emergence of 23-year-old Shai Hope as a batsman of Test quality. Without a half-century in his first 15 Test innings, the right-hander carved out a gritty 90 in the second innings in the second Test at Bridgetown last May as West Indies beat Pakistan by 106 runs.
He then became the first player in 127 years of first-class cricket at Leeds to make century in both innings of a Test, as he guided the Caribbean side to an astonishing five-wicket win on the final day of the second Test there.
Combined with the likes of consistent opener Kraigg Brathwaite, Roston Chase and Jermaine Blackwood, and fast bowlers Shannon Gabriel and Kemar Roach, Holder believes the Windies possess the ability to seriously challenge contenders.
“I think Kraigg Brathwaite is the heart and soul of our batting,” Holder pointed out.
“He’s been doing it for a little while now for us. He is our most experienced player basically and he’s done really well for us over the years so I back Kraigg to lead our batting as he does most of the times.
“We’ve obviously got players like Shai Hope, Jermaine Blackwood and Kyle Hope. We’ve got young exciting talent there, it’s just about us putting it together on the particular day.
“In the bowling department, Shannon Gabriel is pretty much our spearhead and you’ve got guys like Kemar Roach who had a really good time in England coming back into Test cricket.”
Play bowls off at 10 a.m. (4 a.m. Eastern Caribbean time).
WEST INDIES – Jason Holder (captain), Kraigg Brathwaite, Kieran Powell, Kyle Hope, Shai Hope, Roston Chase, Jermaine Blackwood, Shane Dowrich (wicketkeeper), Kemar Roach, Shannon Gabriel, Alzarri Joseph, Miguel Cummins, Shimron Hetmyer, Raymon Reifer, Devendra Bishoo.
ZIMBABWE – Graeme Cremer (captain), Hamilton Masakadza, Solomon Mire, Chamu Chibhabha, Craig Ervine, Brendan Taylor, Sikandar Raza, Sean Williams, Malcolm Waller, Peter Moor, Regis Chakabva (wicketkeeper), Michael Chinouya, Chris Mpofu, Kyle Jarvis, Tendai Chisoro, Nyasha Mayavo.