The timing of this piece is unfortunate, coming as it does on the back of a West Indies victory in the 2nd Test Match in Barbados. Pakistan at their mercurial best folding for a paltry 81 under a 5 wicket onslaught from Shannon Gabriel, who collected his Test-best figures of 5-11.
A home Test triumph against the chronically inconsistent Pakistan should in theory not be unexpected. But with West Indies stock being so low, any victory outside of the narrow confines of T20 (even these are becoming increasingly rare), feels like a major achievement.
Discounting their dead rubber victory in the UAE against the same opposition in October last year, this was their first success in a live Test since gaining a series-levelling win against England – two years ago this week. We have to go all the way back to the summer of 2012 (2-0 vs New Zealand) to catch sight of the last series victory against any team other than Zimbabwe or Bangladesh.
Jason Holder, for his part, has now led West Indies in four Test series and is still to experience anything other than ultimate defeat. His overall captaincy record is terminally uninspiring with a record of two victories outweighed by nine, often heavy, defeats. He is partially assisted by three draws but two of which were largely courtesy of significant rain interruptions.
In the realms of 50-over cricket, the statistics probably make for even worse reading. Since an insipid World Cup performance, his players have navigated their way through just five wins in 22 matches. These include a defeat and a tie to a barely functioning Zimbabwe side.
The culmination of this is a descent to ninth in the ICC ODI rankings and a subsequent failure to qualify for this summer’s Champions Trophy. Equally fragile is their eighth place in the Test rankings where a newly confident Bangladesh, on a steady upwards curve, look set to displace them in the table. This would satisfactorily complete the West Indies retreat from the top table of cricket into the also-rans and aspiring associates.
When viewed against this statistical landscape the uninitiated could be forgiven for questioning why Jason Holder still retains the captaincy of the West Indies team. Especially, when he wasn’t even present for the one shining glimmer of success, which was their T20 World Cup triumph last year.
However, the comparison is ill-founded and unfair. Holder was given the job of ODI skipper just a little more than a year after making his international bow. A debut incidentally where the West Indies were rolled over at the WACA for a mere 70 and then spent just 10 humiliating overs in the field as the Australians comfortably knocked off the runs. It was a good early grounding for what was to follow when he later assumed the captaincy from Dwayne Bravo.
Despite being only 23 and still establishing himself as an international performer the WICB in late 2014 opted for him as the best option to lead their deflated team. One that was shorn of its best players, mired in wage disputes and riven by the traditional inter-island political intrigue and wrangling. Clive Lloyd in his role as head of the Selection Panel vociferously drove the appointment of Holder. The rationale being that, despite his inexperience, Holder possessed a calm head, strong leadership skills and a solid tactical brain. This was a view endorsed by Caribbean legends of the stature of Viv Richards and Tony Cozier.
They hoped, possibly with a good measure of desperation, that the tall, imposing, yet softly-spoken and inexperienced new captain could act as a unifying force. A breath of new air to revive the ailing and traduced giant that is West Indies cricket. A tough five-match tour of South Africa probably didn’t offer the most realistic opportunity to bring back the good times. Rather predictably they went down 4-1, suffering some heavy defeats, but Holder (4-53) was at least instrumental in their one-wicket victory in Port Elizabeth.
This was followed by a rather more painful opening World Cup defeat to Ireland. Struggling through the group stages, they were predictably chopped off at knees at the quarter-final stage by a rampant New Zealand.
None of this served to dampen the enthusiasm of the selectors as, later that year, they extended his captaincy remit to include the Test team. Much as it were with the ODIs, Holder was immediately saddled with leading the team on tough tours to Sri Lanka and Australia. Predictably they lost all matches and suffered the indignity of a couple of innings defeat hammerings.
Over the last 12 to 18 months the amount of Test Cricket played by the West Indies has been disappointing. However, when they have set foot on the field they have usually struggled to compete effectively. The one exception being when they have played the aforementioned and obliging Pakistan.
There have been some high spots but these are usually confined to sessions or at most single days of matches. They seem to lack the ability to sustain a solid performance for the required duration of a Test Match. That being said, the problem looks to be fundamentally linked to quality rather than an absence of heart or even concentration.
And sadly that is one area that is manifestly beyond young Jason Holder’s control. He has a team that is largely padded with necessary but not quite world class senior professionals. Those players supplemented by a coterie of middle of the road journeyman. Limited players who will never ultimately be good enough to perform consistently at international level. When these players are displaced it is usually by completely untried and inexperienced youngsters who not surprisingly largely fail to bridge the chasm between Island cricket and the international game.
Holder himself is a steady if not spectacular cricketer. As a bowling all-rounder, he averages 37 with the ball and a shade over 30 with the bat – solid and respectable but far outside the realms of “world-beater” status. In some ways, his bowling could be perceived as a symbol of the decline of cricket in the Caribbean. In another era, the 6ft 7 Holder would have bowled fast and struck fear into the hearts of batsman, in the true and glorious style of West Indies pace bowling. But the reality is that he bowls only a little above medium-fast and is reminiscent of the type of out-gunned bowlers England used to send out to combat the likes of Holding, Roberts, and Marshall.
Jason Holder is the proud owner of an impossible and once great office. Single-handedly he cannot reverse the decline of West Indies cricket. One that as the year’s progress feels evermore irreversible. With a poor and underfunded domestic structure, a wrong-headed domestic board, a player exodus and a world governing body that has turned its face away. The upsides and paths to survival are so well hidden as to be almost impenetrable. To such an extent that the team has often lost before it even gets close to stepping onto the field.
Like the wallflower at a high school prom, Holder remains sat firmly in his chair while all his friends have gone off to party. You can see them on your television screens littered across the IPL. With big smiles on their faces, they are enjoying collecting the fast money. It would be uncharitable to pass consternation on them but it is depressing to think that they could and should be playing in the ongoing home Test series.
While they party, Holder is dutifully sweeping the school hall and stacking up the chairs. He knows that if he doesn’t do it, no one else will. His strengths are old fashioned, linked as they are to dedication, diligence and duty.
It may not be glamorous, but if this is to be the new face of West Indies cricket. Then, it does at least make an appealing one.