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How the West Indies became a fast-bowling paradise again

Trusting the Duke's ball and preparing green pitches to suit the likes of Shannon Gabriel and Kemar Roach has helped the team become a force in Test cricket

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
Jason Holder leads his players on a victory lap, West Indies v England, 2nd Test, 3rd day, Antigua, February 2, 2019

Holder: belief, optimism, determination  •  Getty Images

Just after the World Cup, there was speculation India might rest Virat Kohli and Jasprit Bumrah for the tour of the West Indies, but the idea didn't have much basis in reality. Not only is every Test of every series important now on account of the World Test Championship, India will need their best batsman in what has been the most difficult conditions to bat in in recent times.
The first decade of this century was a frustrating time to watch Test cricket played in the West Indies. With their legendary fast bowlers bowing out, West Indies played most of their matches on slow, low surfaces, making for boring contests. As a result, two in every five Tests were drawn, the highest ratio in world cricket. While the batting averages were not the highest in the world, the scoring rate was the lowest, which meant these were pitches where it was difficult to both score runs and get wickets, the only two currencies of the game. A region known for pace in its bowling and flair in its batting was discouraging both. Not that there was spin on offer either.
Ottis Gibson is a man now known for shaking up the pitches made in South Africa. You can argue that there was probably no need for such a drastic change, but when the West Indies needed that change, Gibson facilitated a pretty significant one. In the year 2011, his first as coach of the regional team, Gibson insisted that they use Duke's balls for home Tests. The draw percentage since the change has fallen from 40 to 18.91, almost on par with England and India, and a better rate than New Zealand and the UAE.
This was a time when West Indies couldn't afford to look away from the demand for more exciting Test cricket the world over, but while others were bringing it about with subtle changes to their pitches, West Indies needed something more drastic.
In 2017, though, West Indies consciously changed the nature of their pitches too. In Shannon Gabriel and Kemar Roach, with support from Jason Holder and Alzarri Joseph, they had a pace attack that could make use of these harder, bouncier, seamer-friendly tracks. They went against the advice of the outgoing coaches Stuart Law and Nic Pothas when they stuck with Duke's balls and green pitches for the series against England last year.
The argument was that England were used to facing Duke's balls, and they had a seam attack that hoped the Duke's balls would, in the words of their coach Trevor Bayliss, play into their hands. To their credit, the current administrators didn't want to risk boring cricket by going for the safety of the Kookaburra. Moreover, Duke's had by now started manufacturing customised balls to suit the conditions in the Caribbean. If anything, the hosts dialled up the green on the pitches further. The results have been emphatic.
The change is deeper than just the wickets for fast bowlers: overall difficulty level in batting has risen more in the West Indies than elsewhere over the last decade.
It does help that West Indies have found a pace attack that has been fit enough and penetrative enough to do well in these conditions to keep them competitive. It means that their lack of batting riches gets neutralised to an extent.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo