Shortly before joining his team-mates for his first day of training as a member of West Indies’ Test squad, Alzarri Joseph was made to climb a staircase at Sabina Park’s North Stand. From somewhere near the middle of the ground, the WICB’s media manager trained a 300mm lens on him. He took a few backward steps, eye glued to viewfinder, and stopped moving only when the framing was just right: Joseph on top of the staircase, hands on balustrade, and below him a sign saying “Courtney Walsh End”.
No pressure, young man.
Walsh bowled 30,019 balls in Test cricket, the most by any fast bowler, ever. Joseph is yet to play Test cricket, of course, and has only bowled 949 balls in first-class cricket. He is only 19.
The cricketing world has seen what Joseph can do in short bursts. At the Under-19 World Cup, he sent the leg stump of Zimbabwe’s Brendan Sly flying with the fastest ball of the tournament, measured at 143kph, and, in the semi-final, showed he could be just as nasty at the other end of the length spectrum, roughing up the Bangladesh opener Pinak Ghosh with a series of bouncers, one of which clattered into the side of his helmet.
Can Joseph sustain that pace, and that intensity, into his third spell of a sweltering day, the way Walsh did time after time in a 16-year Test career? Will West Indies pick Joseph for the second Test against India, and give the cricketing world the opportunity of finding out?
Marlon Samuels will not make that decision, but he made his thoughts as clear as possible when he spoke to the media on Thursday.
“Me? I would definitely play him,” he said. “Fit, fast and fearless. When are you going to play him? At 25? He’s 19 now, it’s the best time to just let him go and enjoy himself and express himself.”
Conditions at Sabina Park might just allow Joseph – or any combination of fast bowlers West Indies pick – to do that. Two days before the Test match, the pitch wore a thick coat of grass. At 10.45am, when the white sheet covering it first came off to allow the umpires to look at it, it was a bright, almost neon green. In the afternoon, when the West Indian players arrived at the ground, and sang “Happy Birthday” to Sir Garfield Sobers on his 80th, it was still green, but not alarmingly so.
Nothing had happened to the pitch in the interim. Perhaps it looked less green because the shock of first seeing it had worn off; perhaps it was just the sun sucking away the morning’s moisture. It was just a different shade of green.
By the time the Test match commences, the grass might lose a few millimeters, and some of it might get rolled into the surface, but much of it will probably remain in place.
Behind the western square boundary is the Kingston Cricket Club’s pavilion, and mounted on the roof beams of the members’ bar are plaques commemorating every batsman to have scored centuries in both innings of Test matches. If the pitch for this Test match plays true to its appearance, it will take some effort for anyone to join Clyde Walcott and Lawrence Rowe in achieving that feat at Sabina Park.
But batsmen, according to the groundsman Charlie Joseph, will enjoy true bounce, at least on the first two days.
“Mikey [Michael Holding] always used to tell me, you need bounce on the first two days,” Charlie Joseph said. “What happens on the third and fourth day, that’s not up to you. That’s nature. But you want true bounce on the first two days. You want to put your foot here,” he says, planting left foot firmly forward, “and do that” – a shadow cover drive, on the up. “That’s good cricket.”
We will only know for certain on Saturday, but conditions could cause both teams to alter the strategies they employed in Antigua. West Indies are chasing the series, and a green pitch gives them as good a chance as they’ll probably get to bowl India out twice. A green pitch could also narrow the gap between the bowling attacks, but West Indies will need to do some of that narrowing themselves. That will mean picking Joseph, or Miguel Cummins, or both, to partner Shannon Gabriel and give the pace attack more bite.
India played five bowlers in Antigua, on a slow pitch that offered bounce but little sideways movement. Here, four bowlers could do the job, with the legspin of Amit Mishra potentially surplus to requirements. This could allow them the security of an extra batsman. With only four players – Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, KL Rahul and Bhuvneshwar Kumar – turning up for an optional session on Thursday, India did not reveal any of their cards. By Friday, a clearer picture should emerge.
Whichever way the teams go, they will probably need to contend with a green track. Kent Crafton, the WICB’s regional curator, who is overseeing the preparation of all the pitches for this series, said the board has made a concerted push to prepare quicker, bouncier pitches. “We want to get it back up here,” he said, bringing his hands up to chest level.
Going by the bounce seen in Antigua, and the look of the pitch in Kingston, the efforts seem to be paying off. It’s a positive sign, a rare one in West Indies Test cricket.