West Indies selectors have always believed Rahkeem Cornwall, the 27-year-old offspinner, to be a special talent. Four years ago in a tour game against the visiting Indian side, Cornwall picked up the wickets of Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane, and prompted Kohli to request his presence in the nets before the Tests. When he made his Test debut last year, at home against India, Cornwall bowled long spells and impressed against the strong Indian batting line-up. He then picked up a ten-for in his second Test, against Afghanistan in Lucknow last November.
Cornwall is part of the 14-man West Indies squad touring England for the three-Test series beginning in July. In the following interview Cornwall talks about the England tour, understanding his bowling, and his big batting ambitions.
How proud a moment is this for you, to be on the England tour?
It is exciting. Always good to be back to play cricket. It was a long break. Excited to get into English conditions to start this Test series. It is always a proud moment for anyone that makes the West Indies team. It's an honour, so you just have to go there, perform and make sure you be in the team for a long period.
Growing up, was England always a special place for you in terms of Test cricket?
It is a good, challenging cricket territory. I played there once for West Indies A team [in 2018]. Growing up, I watched a lot of Ashes series. So it is good to go there [now] and play there. No, I don't need to pinch myself. I just see it as another tour. Do the right things and the results will come in the end.
Did you have to think hard before saying yes to touring?
Just a few calls and a few checks to make sure everything is safe - safety comes first. Once I was comfortable with all the necessary checks that the West Indies board has done, I was ready to go on the tour.
This must be a big moment for your family. Were they nervous about it?
I have three sisters and two brothers. We live with our parents. They have always given me love and support for me to go out and perform. We all were on the same page, waiting on CWI [Cricket West Indies] to give us information to see if it is comfortable or not to go. We were not nervous. We were just trying to be safe before we make a decision.
"In my first Test, I bowled to Rahane, and he is a good player of spin. Once I was bowling my stock deliveries and my best deliveries, he understood where I am coming from. Then I needed to be patient and wait for a mistake"
Last year was one to cherish for you: you made your Test debut in Kingston, against India, and then took ten wickets in the Lucknow Test against Afghanistan, where you did better than even Rashid Khan on a pitch Afghanistan had made to suit their spin-strong bowling attack. How did that feel?
It was a proud moment for me, getting my first five-wicket haul in Test cricket. I just knew that going to India, probably the surfaces there would suit my type of bowling, and so I just went there and put the ball in the right areas and tried to be as consistent as I can.
It was a special year for me. For a few years I was very close to making the team, it was just a matter of when. Didn't imagine I would pick up a ten-wicket haul in my second Test match, but I knew I was capable enough to do those kind of things. So it is not a really big surprise to me.
Can you tell us about your first Test wicket - Cheteshwar Pujara?
He is a player that plays spin well. He looks to use his feet to the spinners. So basically I was trying to keep him in the crease, and I got a little bit of bounce and he cut it to backward point. Probably catch 'im a little bit off guard in terms of the bounce, yeah.
In fact, you also got Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane out in a warm-up match before the previous Test series in 2016.
That was in a President's XI game in St Kitts. I got a five-wicket haul in that game as well. I got Kohli lbw and Rahane caught bat-pad. They were basic offspin deliveries with just a little bit of bounce. I also got Pujara bowled in that match - he was attempting a sweep shot.
Kohli asked for you specifically to bowl to him in the nets before that Test series started. What was that like?
I see it as a breakthrough moment for me where one of the best batsman in the world is asking for me to come to bowl to him in the nets.
What do you learn from bowling against such batsmen?
You learn a lot. A lot of patience, [that you need to] stick to line and length consistently rather than being all over the place.
How did your bowling action develop?
I bowl like that from ever since I know myself, and I go from strength to strength.
As a spinner, would you say your height is one of your assets?
That is one of my biggest strengths, but I also get a lot of bounce as well. And the way how I impart spin on the ball. Yes, control is a very big part of my bowling.
Has anybody helped you with your bowling?
I did a lot of work with Mushtaq Ahmed. That was in 2019. We had a two-week bowling camp when I learned a lot of different things from him about spin bowling. He didn't really change much, he just worked on what I already had to see how best we can create that offspinning art and we just go from there.
Curtly Ambrose came out in support of you after former West Indies offspinner Lance Gibbs was critical of your bowling action. He said, "Let them see you can get the job done in your own way and you own style." Were you encouraged by that?
Okay. No, I never heard what he [Ambrose] said. Once you know how to master the craft, why would you want to change it? I just stick to what I know.
"I'm not too far. I think my batting technique is very good. Just a couple more things that I need to iron out. I am capable enough to do the job for my team"
Can you talk about how you find a bowling rhythm?
Once you get your mechanics right and everything in line, your rhythm will fall in place. Shoulders, the way how I set up my bowling side to land the ball in the right areas. In the Afghanistan Test I had good rhythm, the ball was coming nicely out of my hands. I enjoyed that.
In my first Test, I bowled to Rahane, and he is a good player of spin. Once I was bowling my stock deliveries and my best deliveries, I was being played with an understanding - he understood where I am coming from. So all I had to do now was to be patient and wait until whoever make a mistake.
What is your stock delivery?
My normal offbreak.
You have now bowled more than 100 overs in Test cricket. What have you learned? And what do you think you need to work on?
Test cricket and first-class cricket are two different types of cricket. Test cricket, you have to be more patient, you are bowling to better players, so you have to be more smarter and more putting the ball in the right areas consistently. In first-class cricket, probably you can get away with one or two bad balls, but in Test cricket the margin is very slim, so you have to be consistent and always be on the money.
After the ten-for against Afghanistan you said you expected to score a Test century before getting a five-for. What did you mean?
My batting is going to be a big part of my career. I'm capable enough of scoring runs, so I just have to work hard on my batting and do the right things that I know I can do with the bat, and maybe I come up full-blown allrounder.
You have spoken about having the ability to be a top-order batsman. How far away from that goal are you?
I'm not too far. I think my technique is very good. Just a couple more things that I need to iron out. I am capable enough to do the job for my team.
You are an amazing slip fielder. Does it come naturally?
Fielding is something I put a lot of hard work into. I am a very good catcher. I catch the ball well at slips, even midwicket or short cover. I am trying to master areas and see how best I can contribute in the field. During training I do a lot of catching. Just make sure you keep your eyes on the ball right through.
Is it those big hands plus reflexes?
It is a little of both. You have to have both to do the job.
When it comes to your fitness, what are the things you focus on?
There's no doubt about it I am a big guy, but I have to put in work. I don't really get too bogged down and lazy about it. I spend a lot of time on my fitness. Try to eat properly.
Does the focus on your body size and weight distract you or mentally hurt you?
I don't really study what other people say. I know what I can do. And I know what I need to do. So I just focus on that and leave the rest.
"A lot of people underestimate me because of my size. I fool a lot of people - especially bowling from my height and getting a lot of spin." You said that a couple of years ago to the Antigua Observer. Does that still hold true?
Yeah. Nothing has really changed. I just have to work from strength to strength.
You recently had surgery on both your knees. In terms of intensity where are you right now?
I got the knee surgeries in December 2019. I am getting back there. My knees are way better than before. I had to get the surgery done because of an old injury.
"In first-class cricket, probably you can get away with one or two bad balls, but in Test cricket the margin is very slim"
You have 300-plus wickets in 62 first-class matches with 19 five-fors. Do you think you are underappreciated despite the good numbers?
Not really. The numbers speak. I just have to keep building as my career goes on. I have to cherish my performance. Celebrate with my team-mates. You just have to stick to basics and stay calm and go about your business.
And are you calm at all times?
I am this calm from day one. That's how I know myself from ever. Hold your composure and do your thing.
Pitches in England are not spin-friendly, but you have played there before, with West Indies A. Do you reckon because of that and the bounce you generate, you hold the upper hand?
England is not really spinner-friendly, but if you put in the work you'll get some result. If the weather is dry, you will get spin. You just have to be consistent and with different bounce, line and length, you will be good.
What will be the key for you to be effective?
Patience. Consistency. Keep at it for long periods.
Finally, what did your family tell you before you left the Caribbean?
Stay safe and enjoy your cricket. Once you enjoy your cricket, success will come
Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo