West Indies December 31, 2017

Headingley and after

West Indies hit a thrilling high in 2017, and then slumped at the tail end of the year

H is for Hope, who made two centuries in the Test win in England © Getty Images

Had their year ended in early November, after winning their first Test series in three years, West Indies' cricketers could have considered 2017 as a year the Jason Holder era began to gain some momentum. But the win in the first Test over Zimbabwe in Bulawayo was the last time West Indies tasted victory for the year.

When their one-day series in New Zealand ended in damp Christchurch, they had lost five straight matches, and none by narrow margins. Those results put a more sombre, realistic spin on 2017 for West Indies cricket.

In short, not too much had changed for the better.

Across the three formats, West Indies won only 12 of 41 matches, half of those wins coming in T20 internationals. The other six were split evenly between Tests and one-dayers.

But while their ODI form remained dismal - the 3-0 series whitewash against New Zealand a case in point - the Test match victories in successive series over Pakistan at home and England and Zimbabwe away were small but hopeful indications of a group of players growing into their games together.

The win in Headingley, delivered by the splendid hundreds of Shai Hope (in each innings) and Kraigg Brathwaite was a demonstration of character, a glimpse of the heights the team under Holder can reach.

But the heavy losses in New Zealand were a setback. The recent bugbears of shoddy catching, vulnerability against short-pitched bowling, an unstable middle order and all-round inconsistency were on display once more. The limited pool of bowling talent was also exposed. The coach, Stuart Law, a steady defender of this group, will know there is still much, much work to do in 2018.

Stuart Law will need all of the rebels back in the fold if West Indies are to have a shot at qualification for the World Cup © WICB

High point
The back-from-the-dead performance at Headingley was one of those see-it-to-believe-it performances. Nothing prepared the cricket world, especially the Caribbean public, for the tour de force delivered by Hope and Brathwaite that produced a five-wicket victory.

The context in which the game was played made this win seem highly improbable. The previous (day-night) match, at Edgbaston, had hardly been a contest. West Indies had contrived to lose 19 wickets for 261 runs in under 77 overs, and the game by an innings and 209 runs. They couldn't handle James Anderson and Stuart Broad.

So going to the traditional swing bowler's paradise of Headingley, it seemed like another execution was in the making. Instead, Holder's side, battered on the field and pilloried in the press, showed their best selves. First they restricted England to 258, and then took control of the match after Brathwaite (134) and Hope (147) set up a first innings effort of 427.

Still, a West Indies victory did not seem the likeliest outcome after they were set 322 to win. These days West Indian batsmen don't normally bat well twice in the same game. And yet, Hope (118) not out and Brathwaite (95) did it again, to set up the upset.

This was a retro West Indies performance, a win inspired by ridicule. A man could lose his life if he held his breath waiting for a repeat.

Low point
Pakistan's seven previous attempts at winning a Test series in the Caribbean had all failed. And they were six balls away from making it a frustrating eight out of eight at Roseau in Dominica when "the Shannon Gabriel" happened.

Gabriel, the West Indies No. 11, had dutifully kept Roston Chase company for half an hour on the final day of the third and final Test match, seemingly conscious that one of the few remaining records their team still held was on the line.

But then, a moment he would struggle to explain arrived.

A Yasir Shah delivery pitched wide of off stump seemed to present no danger, until Gabriel, wildly, recklessly, burdened by the pressure of the occasion, lashed out and dragged the ball from out of harm's way into his stumps.

Everyone at Windsor Park was in shock: Chase, stranded at the other end, having battled over six hours for 101; the ecstatic Pakistan captain, about-to-be-retired Misbah ul-Haq and his fellow retiree Younis Khan; and the West Indian fans, left empty and deflated, having been built up with hope that the series could be drawn as the last-wicket stand had progressed.

Gabriel had done as much as anyone to keep his side in the series with his nine wickets at Kensington Oval in the previous match, but he found few comforters beyond his team-mates after that shot. For of the many defeats West Indies suffered in 2017, none would have hurt as much, just because another piece of a once-glittering legacy had disappeared.

New kid on the block
For as long as he plays the game, Hope will always be associated with the famous Headingley turnaround. He became the first man in over a century of cricket at the old ground to score two centuries in the same match. That may just be one of those statistical freaks of nature, but what was not in doubt was that the feat announced Hope's arrival.

What those knocks showed more than anything was that he had the willingness to adjust his game to suit the situation, and that he possessed the ability to handle high-pressure situations. His thirst for knowledge and industriousness are also valuable assets.

Shannon Gabriel took nine wickets against Pakistan in Bridgetown and promptly turned villain, handing them a series win in the next Test © WICB

And while Hope did not end the year on the kind of high his knocks at Headingley seemed to forecast, his average of 45.47 in ten Tests amounted to a solid return. It was more than 27 better than his career average from 11 Tests before Headingley and the best indicator yet that the 23-year-old can become the kind of star batsman - both in style and substance - that West Indies cricket have lacked since Brian Lara retired.

Fading star
When Kieran Powell struck two centuries in a Test against Bangladesh in 2012, he gave himself an almost impossible act to follow. So it has proved.

Out of cricket and the West Indies team for two years, Powell forced himself back into the Test side in 2017 after heavy scoring in the first-class competition. But given an extended run as Kraigg Brathwaite's opening partner, he struggled to cement his place, averaging 28.84 for the year and managing just two scores over 50. It is not the kind of return likely to convince the selectors that 27-year-old Powell is the long-term answer to a problem at the top of the order that is proving most difficult to solve.

What 2018 holds
By comparison with the other years since 2014, 2017 was a relatively peaceful one off the field. Relatively. There was, of course, the Twitter feud between Darren Bravo and Cricket West Indies president Dave Cameron that ran for nine months, into 2017, before an official truce was declared. However, Bravo still has not returned to the West Indies middle order. Selected for the one-day leg of the England tour, the free agent declined. So did his brother Dwayne, and mystery spinner Sunil Narine, who, with Kieron Pollard, also withdrew from the T20 series in New Zealand for "personal reasons". Evidently the gap in trust between some of the region's best players and CWI remains wide. So while veteran Chris Gayle has taken advantage of CWI's amnesty offer, the international teams still lack all of their best players.

Perhaps the proposed new flexible contracts will encourage genuine reconciliation. Certainly Law can use the Bravos and Narine as West Indies go through the humbling process of trying to qualify for 2019's 50-over World Cup, but the chances of securing the services of all three seem remote.

Holder, the Test and ODI captain, made strides as an allrounder in 2017. And he has shown himself to be a determined and focused leader, one bent on forging a new era for West Indies cricket. But without seasoned reinforcements, he and his green group will again find the going less than steady in 2018.

Garth Wattley is a writer with the Trinidad Express