It may not be remembered with quite the infamy of Tony Greig’s “grovel” comment, but Colin Graves’ pre-series suggestion that West Indies were likely to represent “mediocre” opposition seems sure to pass into cricketing folklore.
Whatever Graves meant – and to be fair to the incoming chairman of the ECB, his off-the-cuff remarks were made in a local radio interview that he cannot have thought would haunt him weeks later – his words provided the perfect motivational tool for West Indies.
Indeed, the word “mediocre” was pasted on the dressing room door during the first Test in Antigua as their new coach, Phil Simmons, sought to focus the mind of his team.
Not for long, though. After that Test – a Test that restored belief in the dressing room as the side batted out the last day to salvage a draw – the sign was torn down and thrown away. As Simmons, still bristling from the patronising comment, put it: “Who is he? How much cricket as he played?”
But it wasn’t just Graves who dismissed West Indies’ chances ahead of this series. With several high-profile players absent in the IPL, though relatively few realistic Test candidates, and a grim recent history – this was only their second win in 29 Tests against England and, excluding Bangladesh, they had won once in their previous 13 Tests before Barbados – there were many who doubted their chances.
But there is a new spirit, a new belief in this side. Perhaps inspired by Simmons, whose record with a modest Ireland side was remarkable, West Indies found a way to complement the raw talent with the rigour and discipline required to succeed at Test level.
“Everyone knows we have talent,” Simmons said. “But if you don’t believe – if you just go out there and fan about – and don’t believe that you can do things you’re capable of doing, then you’re wasting the talent you have. Belief is a huge thing in our dressing room.”
So instead of collapsing as many West Indies sides of recent vintage would have done on the last day in Antigua – they were, remember, five wickets down at lunch on the final day – Jason Holder, Denesh Ramdin and Kemar Roach battled for an unlikely draw. And instead of losing faith after defeat in Grenada, they redoubled their efforts and fought back to square the series in Barbados despite losing an important toss and conceding a first innings lead. It suggests a resilience that was not always there in the past.
“Colin Graves’ statement showed there was an underestimation of what we could do,” Simmons said following victory in Barbados. “This is huge for us.
“To work so hard in Grenada and Antigua and come out with nothing was hard. But you saw the determination. Everyone showed character. That’s the biggest thing I can take form it. It’s massive character that is coming out at the early stage of my tenure. We’ve had to work for four weeks.
“I’ll leave it for him to judge if we’re mediocre. But as he walked out [of Kensington Oval], I think he may have seen some signs with the word mediocre on them.”
The most encouraging aspect of this victory from a West Indies perspective is the relative youth of most of its architects. In Holder (5 for 49 in the match), Jermaine Blackwood (132 runs for one dismissal) and Darren Bravo (82 in the second innings), West Indies have three relatively young players who could serve them for years to come.
While Bravo’s strengths – and weaknesses – are well-known, the others have played only a handful of Tests. Holder, a batsman whose strokes hint at real class and a bowler of huge potential, is the sort of quality allrounder who could, when his development is complete, balance the side and allow the selection of five frontline bowlers. Blackwood, meanwhile, is an aggressive batsman whose propensity to hit over the top will delight and infuriate over the coming years. But here his ability to curb his attacking instincts for the benefit of the team – and his insistence that Test cricket means more to him than any future IPL opportunity – bodes well. Both require perseverance.
It is too early to judge Simmons’ as West Indies coach. Tougher challenges loom. This England side has some talent but it is, as yet, inexperienced and lacking in belief. Australia will offer sterner opposition.
And West Indies have some problems of their own. The career of Shivnarine Chanderpaul is clearly in its twilight and the attack remains reliant upon the new-ball quality of Jerome Taylor.
But this has been an impressive start. Simmons – and the bowling coach Curtly Ambrose – have instilled both discipline and confidence in this side. It is a cocktail that has rarely been present in equal measures in the Caribbean of late.
Ramdin, the captain, suggested it was a pep talk by Ambrose that inspired the fightback when England began their second innings.
“Mr Ambrose came and said: ‘we have it in us, just go and believe'” Ramdin said. “And when our new ball bowlers took wickets, we knew we were right back in the game.
“We have more belief in ourselves. We have shown we can bat out the last day. We have shown we can chase down scores on the last day. We can beat teams ranked higher than us now. We have commitment and belief.”
That belief may be tested over the coming months. But after many years focusing on former glories, it does seem reasonable to peer into the future with cautious optimism.
There may be another lesson here. West Indies’ victory in this series came on the one surface which might be termed a result wicket. While attritional cricket has become the norm in the Caribbean – at international level, at least – it may show more belief in their side if the authorities provided them with more opportunity to express their talent on responsive surfaces.
There may be days when such a policy backfires, but there will be more when it excites and inspires. And, judging by the numbers who came to cheer their side to victory in the final moments, the cricket-loving people of the Caribbean will respond well to more entertaining cricket.