On the eve of the ODI series decider against India in Cuttack, West Indies coach Phil Simmons reckoned that West Indies' best might not be good enough to topple India. However, he had stressed that this limited-overs series in India had set the scene for West Indies' resurgence, after they had finished second from bottom at the World Cup earlier this year.
As it turned out on Sunday, despite the best efforts of captain Kieron Pollard and Nicholas Pooran, who thumped 135 together in 16.2 overs - the highest partnership in the match - West Indies did fall short. However, Pooran's fire and Pollard's ice (only in comparison) during that stand gave India a scare and showed the way forward for West Indies.
Debutant fast bowler Navdeep Saini had just bounced out Shimron Hetmyer (37) and then yorked Roston Chase (38) to reduce the visitors to 144 for 4 in the 32nd over. However, unfazed by that double-strike, Pooran went after India's bowlers. Ravindra Jadeja was fiercely reverse-swept for four, Mohammed Shami was laced through extra-cover, and when Kuldeep Yadav was drilled over long-off for six, Pooran reached his second successive fifty-plus score off 43 balls.
At the other end, Saini was harrying Pollard with serious pace and bounce. After having the batsman sway away from a bouncer, the quick let rip an inswinging yorker to ping Pollard's toe, leaving the batsman needing some on-field treatment.
Shardul Thakur also found some extra bounce with his slower bouncers and tied Pollard down to 4 off 11 balls. Then, as if a switch had been flicked on, Pollard lined up Kuldeep for a couple of sixes down the ground in the 37th over - in all, Pollard hit 21 off ten balls from the left-arm wristspinner.
Pooran took more risks against the seamers and even pulled off some trick shots after getting to his half-century. When Shami came from over the wicket and bowled an off-stump yorker, Pooran opened the face of the bat and deftly ran the ball away between the keeper and short third-man for four.
Two overs later, Pooran pulled off a more freakish shot. He had jumped across off to open up the leg side, but Saini chased him and tucked him up for room. Yet, Pooran swatted the ball away between deep midwicket and wide long-on. Soon after, he unveiled a Yuvraj Singh-esque flick off Thakur, sending the ball over the square-leg fence. Eventually, West Indies pillaged 105 off their last eight overs, hoisting the total up to 315 for 5.
"Polly [Pollard] obviously is stronger to the spinners, so we allow him to attack a little bit [against them]," Pooran said of West Indies' game plan at the post-match press conference. "Against the pacers, I try to play a little more shots against them. It worked out today and we're happy that it worked out that way."
It helped Pooran that Pollard was at the other end when West Indies were under pressure. They go back a long way, after all. After Pooran had met with a car accident in 2015, he feared for his leg - and career. The doctors weren't sure if Pooran could return to playing cricket at all. It was during this turbulent phase that Pollard took Pooran under his wing and inspired him to come back.
It didn't stop there. It was Pollard who got Pooran an agent and encouraged him to grow his game by playing T20 cricket around the world. Now, after stints in the Bangladesh Premier League, Pakistan Super League, Indian Premier League, Global T20 Canada and Caribbean Premier League, Pooran has established himself as West Indies' gun middle-order batsman both in T20Is and ODIs.
"He's been like a big brother, a father figure to me," Pooran said of Pollard. "He's been there [for me] since I returned to cricket from the accident. He gave me an opportunity, which I am thankful for. We know each other really well and we're good friends on and off the field. So we complement each other while batting. We play for the same club and same franchise back home. So, it's [about] understanding the wicket, the situation of the game and just execute the skills."
As for Pollard, from 37 off 39 balls, he ended with an unbeaten 74 off 51. During the World Cup, West Indies had been guilty of over-attacking, and as a result lost games from winning positions. Since Pollard has taken over the limited-overs captaincy, West Indies have looked to take chases deep, a departure from the smash-the-leather-off-the-ball approach.
It worked for West Indies against Afghanistan and led them to their first ODI series victory in more than five years. It worked for Shimron Hetmyer and Shai Hope in the ODI series opener in Chennai. It seemed to work in the series decider in Cuttack and gave West Indies a total to work with. This could well be West Indies' key takeaway from the two-month long India trip.
"We're definitely building," Pooran said. "India are definitely one of the strongest teams in the world and they proved that again today. We came here and we showed fight. We could have won the T20I series and even this series. It showed that they're one of the best teams and it showed that we're fighting.
"There are better things to come, but we're taking it day by day and eventually we will get to where we want to."