England have felt the heat from West Indies' resurgent battery of quicks on more than one occasion in recent years, most notably during heavy defeats in Barbados and Antigua 18 months ago. The fires stoked by Kemar Roach, Shannon Gabriel and Jason Holder have drawn comparison with West Indies attacks of old, and the team's assistant coach, Roddy Estwick agreed that Caribbean fast-bowling stocks were at their highest since the 1980s.
Roach, notably, dismantled England with match figures of 8 for 82 at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium in 2019, having claimed 5 for 17 as the tourists were shot out for 77 the week before in Bridgetown, and has already indicated he is keen to "get stuck into them" again on this tour. While his regular new-ball partner Gabriel is currently working his way back from an ankle injury, young talents Alzarri Joseph and Chemar Holder - described by coach Phil Simmons as a potential "great of West Indies cricket" - are also in the squad to face England.
Gabriel could still come into contention if he can prove his fitness, while alongside him in West Indies' 11-man back-up group are the likes of Oshane Thomas, Anderson Phillip and Keon Harding. Even without Jofra Archer, who played for West Indies U19s but will line-up for England, such strength in depth suggests the Caribbean is once again "blessed" with pace options.
"The fast bowling is very key to us," Estwick said. "Shannon, Jason, Alzarri, Kemar. The four big fast bowlers, they're here but what we've [also] got on this tour is a group of youngsters coming through: Chemar Holder, Oshane Thomas, Anderson Phillip. We're beginning to get blessed with fast bowlers again in the West Indies, so that's an exciting time for us. So we're looking forward to this series and looking forward to seeing how the fast bowlers go."
Roach's importance becomes clear when you look at the performances of West Indies' quicks since he returned to the Test set-up in 2017, on their last tour of England. In that period, only a handful of fast bowlers have taken their wickets at a better strike rate than Roach's 45.6. Not far behind are Holder (45.9) and Gabriel (47.6), while England's most penetrative seamer over the same timeframe is 37-year-old James Anderson, who strikes every 53.4 balls.
Estwick has worked regularly with Roach, Gabriel and Holder since he was first appointed bowling coach in 2016, and said that they now had the necessary combination of fitness and experience to challenge batting line-ups around the world.
"What we've done is improve our fitness," he said. "That's one of the key things. If you look back in the 80s, that's one thing the fast bowlers had, was fitness; and the other thing is they're now understanding fast bowling, they're getting to the age, Kemar and Shannon, where they're leading the attack, they're very, very experienced. Jason Holder has become a lot better Test match bowler in the last two years, Alzarri Joseph is now beginning to show his potential. So we've got four fast bowlers where we can challenge any team in the world.
"Once we've improved that fitness, we can maintain pressure right through the day - before we tended to flag a little bit - and while our fitness continues to improve, that's going to be key for us. If we can get that fitness and match sharpness up again, we'll be ready to challenge the English batters."
While Estwick suggested the current crop need to "forge their own identity", he said that with the number of young pace bowlers coming through, West Indies' had not had such an impressive pool of talent to draw from since the 1980s, when the likes of Sylvester Clarke and Wayne Daniel could only manage 11 and 10 Tests respectively because of the names ahead of them in the queue.
"Yes, I personally think so, it's a very exciting time. Most of these boys that are going to be reserves now were involved in the 2016 U19 World Cup. Keemo Paul is not here, so he's another exciting one. We've got quite a few more knocking around in the Caribbean as well, Keon Harding, who was part of that 2016 tournament. Five or six of those boys are beginning to come through. Young Dominic Drakes, the son of Vasbert Drakes. Odean Smith in Jamaica.
Windies' quicks are ramping up the pace in the Old Trafford nets pic.twitter.com/pxTHkjVzGa— ESPNcricinfo (@ESPNcricinfo) June 15, 2020
"So there's six or seven around the age of 20, 22-23, so that's really exciting. Once we can put programmes in place and get them up to a certain standard and get them fit, we should have that pyramid we're looking for, and once Shannon and Roachy move on, we've got people to fill their boots."
West Indies have been training at Old Trafford since landing in England last week and Estwick suggested the bowlers were currently operating at around 80%, with players on both sides striving to get match fit after a long break due to Covid-19 lockdowns. Gabriel has not played at all since September but Estwick said he had regained some of his confidence after ankle surgery and would be trusted to tell the management if he felt he could make it through a Test match.
After memorable encounters in 2017 and 2018-19, this series will mark the third time teams led by Holder and Joe Root have contested the Wisden Trophy. West Indies' Headingley win three years ago was their first in Tests in England since 2000, and Estwick held out the hope they could go one further over the coming weeks.
"We got beaten badly at Edgbaston and regrouped and had a famous win at Headingley. What that tells us is that we can compete," he said. "If you look over the two series, for me you would say the series is three-all right now. England won two Test matches over here in 2017, and we won one; we won two in the Caribbean, and they won one. So the series for us is all square, so we need now to win this series just to get ahead. We won on home soil, they won on home soil, so it's all up for grabs. We've got to make sure we find the extra motivation, and if we can we can spring a surprise."