Few opening batsmen would keep their place in any Test side in the world after a run of form like the one Kraigg Brathwaite has endured over the last two years. Across his last 21 innings coming into this tour, he had made a paltry 241 runs at an average a shade over 12. Despite his past success in English conditions, few would have raised questions if he had been left out.
But Brathwaite’s 65 – the first half-century in international cricket since March – means that he is the top-scorer in this match after its first three days, and has put West Indies into a commanding position. He fought through to stumps under leaden skies against a fresh England attack on the second evening, and set up a platform from which the middle order could build on the third morning.
While many would have lost faith in Brathwaite’s ability during his barren run – his most recent half-century came some 729 days ago – his captain, Jason Holder, gave him full support. The pair have always been close: they were born one year apart and grew up playing together in Barbados, while Brathwaite was one of the players that Holder backed with a long run of games in the difficult early days of his captaincy.
“I’ve played all my cricket with Kraigg: we came through youth cricket together, we play at the same club, so I know Kraigg Brathwaite inside out,” Holder said on the second evening. “Obviously he hasn’t got the runs he’d have wanted in the recent past but I know that he’s shaping towards something really special.
“I always judge how well he’s playing by how well he’s leaving the ball, and I think his judgment so far on tour has been impeccable. I have no doubts about his ability or what he can produce.”
There are times when a close relationship between a captain and a player can be a curse, not least when the player is backed despite a loss of form. Kieran Powell, the opening batsman who was omitted from the touring party entirely despite a strong run in first-class cricket, alluded to that in an Instagram post on Wednesday.
Powell posted a screenshot of a table from ESPNcricinfo’s Live Report of West Indies’ Test averages since the 2017 tour, writing alongside: “One is just left to wonder what the numbers would be if I’d have had the same amount of innings as others who continue to be offered opportunity after opportunity… interesting indeed.”
But Holder will feel vindicated for his faith in Brathwaite after this start to the series. His determined innings set things up for those lower down, and put miles into the bowlers’ legs, just as Holder had asked.
“Me and Jase have been playing [together] from Under-11s,” Brathwaite smiled in his post-match press conference. “I know his game, he knows my game well. Just being around each other, we can obviously share ideas, opinions that we may see. Having him around is always good. And having his support? That’s always a good feeling as well.”
When he bats somewhere approaching his best, Brathwaite demonstrates old-school Test-match virtues: soaking up balls, playing the ball late under his eyes, and adjusting his technique based on the conditions he faces. Few will need reminding of his success in England on the 2017 tour, when his scores of 134 and 95 set up the famous win at Headingley, while his regular stints in county cricket have helped him devise a method that works against the moving ball.
“Playing here in 2017 and playing some county games, [I’ve found] the ball tends to do something throughout the day,” he said. “I think playing the ball as late as possible is always key for me, whether it’s the new ball or the old ball.
“[England] is a place where you’re never in, in a sense. I don’t really like not to play the ball late, even outside England, that’s something that I really work hard on, but especially here playing it late is key.”
Holder had used Brathwaite’s contribution to the win against England at home 18 months ago as an example of how he had managed to help his side, even when the runs weren’t flowing. In that series, Brathwaite made 138 runs at 27.60, but crucially managed to face more balls than anyone else on either side.
“I think he batted as well as I’d seen him bat in a very long time,” Holder said. “He got plenty of starts in that series but just hadn’t been able to convert them.
“He’s our highest-capped player at present, and that should tell you the calibre of player he is for West Indies. I just want him to keep in his zone, keep moving well and keep judging the ball well. I know a big score is around the corner for him.” (Cricinfo)