Analysis

West Indies crashed and burned in the 2021 World Cup. How do they turn their T20I fortunes around?

Their six-led approach has been in the firing line, but their selection was poor, and the bowling has not been up to scratch either

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
21-Jan-2022
Dwayne Bravo looks on as Charith Asalanka and Pathum Nissanka run between the wickets, Sri Lanka vs West Indies, Men's T20 World Cup 2021, Super 12s, Abu Dhabi, November 4, 2021

In their last two games of the 2021 World Cup, West Indies took five wickets and conceded 350 runs  •  Indranil Mukherjee  /  AFP/Getty Images

In five and a half years, West Indies' men's T20 team went from boom to bust.
Carlos Brathwaite's four sixes and Marlon Samuels' shirtless celebrations felt like a distant memory, a pre-pandemic fever dream, when they crashed out of the 2021 World Cup in the Super 12s, with four defeats from five games and an unwanted blot on the legacy of their legendary generation of T20 players.
Kieron Pollard, who retained the captaincy despite their early exit, suggested his side needed to "bin it and move on" after they were bowled out for 55 in their opening game against England. But subsequent defeats to South Africa, Sri Lanka and Australia - and a last-gasp win against a poor Bangladesh side - ensured that the inquest into their shortcomings would need to dig deeper.
There were two key questions to address: how could a team containing so many short-form greats bow out in such ignominy? And how might they now go about putting things right in the 11 months between their debacle and the start of the first round of the 2022 World Cup in Australia?
Six or bust is not always the best formula
From 2012 to 2016, West Indies won two World Cups, with a semi-final exit sandwiched in between. While they were a strong bowling side throughout, their defining quality was a revolutionary batting approach.
Conventional cricketing wisdom highlighted the need to minimise the number of dot balls a team chewed up. West Indies recognised that the runs their power-hitters could score by focusing on hitting sixes far outweighed the marginal gains from running singles. "People say we don't rotate our strike well," Daren Sammy, their captain at the time, said before the 2016 final. "But first thing is, you have to stop us from hitting boundaries."
After their early exit in 2021, the narrative was that West Indies' six-or-dot approach had been found out. "They're playing a dated brand of T20 cricket," Daren Ganga, who captained a Trinidad and Tobago side featuring Pollard, Lendl Simmons and Dwayne Bravo to the Stanford 20/20 title in 2008, said after West Indies' defeat to Sri Lanka.
"We had personnel that could do that [power-hitting] in 2016," Samuel Badree, West Indies' most economical bowler in the 2012 and 2016 campaigns, says. "Opposition teams weren't quite ready for that and they didn't plan for that back then. We caught a lot of teams by surprise. That worked in our favour, in addition to the smaller grounds and the conditions that were on offer.
"When you fast-forward five years, teams were better prepared. We've seen other teams [England and Australia, for example] who have copied that style but they've added the elements of strike rotation and lower dot-ball percentage, while we were stuck in that same old mould from 2016. We are quite inflexible and have one style: hit or miss. That might win you one or two games, but you're not going to win tournaments like that anymore."
In the run-up to last year's World Cup, West Indies had the rare chance to play T20Is with the vast majority of their best players available. They had 17 home games between March and August - 14 of them in a six-week window - and while their final series against Pakistan was badly affected by weather, Cricket West Indies (CWI) was clearly prioritising World Cup preparations.
Pollard emphasised certain areas of improvement. Before their series against South Africa in Grenada they held two net sessions in which the batters were encouraged to work on their "manoeuvring game… just rotating the ball", and were penalised for hitting boundaries. The intention, Pollard said, was "to keep our strength our strength, and work on our weakness". "For the last couple of months, everything was about 'singles, singles, singles'," Nicholas Pooran, West Indies' vice-captain and most promising young batter, said before the World Cup.
But data from the World Cup suggested the lessons had not been learned. About 2.6 balls West Indies faced every over were dots; from the Super 12s stage onwards, only Scotland and Namibia faced more. That figure was only a fraction higher than it had been in 2016, but their six-hitting frequency dropped sharply over the 2016 tournament. West Indies hit as many sixes as their opposition in all five Super 12s games, and more in three of them; they also faced more dots than their opponents in every game.
Notably, their attacking intent had hardly changed: according to CricViz, West Indies played attacking shots to 56% of the balls they faced in 2016, compared to 57% five years later. The contrast in their results over the two World Cups does not mean that stacking a batting line-up with power-hitters has become a flawed strategy. Instead, it illustrates that it is a high-variance approach, and in a tournament as short as a World Cup, it can lead to extreme results.
Conditions in the UAE were a major factor. All four of West Indies' defeats came in either Dubai or Abu Dhabi, where the boundaries were significantly longer than those they had encountered in India half a decade before. Back then, a 3-0 series defeat to Pakistan in the Emirates barely six months after their win in Kolkata had served to illustrate their tendency to struggle on slower pitches. While the involvement of many West Indians in the Abu Dhabi T10 should have helped them adjust to conditions, that tournament's format does little to help with what Ganga calls "softer skills".
Ian Bishop, the broadcaster whose commentary will forever be associated with Brathwaite's heroics in 2016, agrees that the change of venue from India to the UAE did not suit West Indies. "They have to evolve, they have to be versatile," he says. "[At certain venues] it may not always be sixes, it may be fours. It may just be scoring off more deliveries."
Personnel was another key problem. West Indies opted to stick with the veterans who had brought them so much success, but the delay of a year to the tournament left some senior players clinging on. Chris Gayle, whose personality is ill suited to life in a Covid bubble, contributed 45 runs in five innings before his not-quite-retirement at 42. He started the tournament at No. 3, influenced by his success there in the IPL for Punjab Kings, but moved up to open the batting after two games. "That really threw the entire planning out the way," Badree says. Lendl Simmons played the tournament's worst innings, a 35-ball 16 against South Africa that left the finishers with too much to do.
Lendl Simmons' innings, and the subsequent inclusion of Roston Chase, who made his T20 international debut in the third game of a World Cup on the back of two solid CPL seasons, laid bare West Indies' failure to identify a long-term replacement for Samuels, Player of the Match in the 2012 and 2016 finals and the glue that held their batting line-up together.
And yes, teams were better-prepared against West Indies' batting line-up in 2021, making clear plans against their hitters and sticking to them. South Africa posted a fielder almost directly behind the umpire to counter Pollard's strength down the ground, a tactic often used by MS Dhoni for Chennai Super Kings against Mumbai Indians. Pooran had shown his strength hitting with the spin in the IPL; in the World Cup, he faced only three balls of legspin.
"Those analytics and match-ups evolved in that five-year period - where we didn't have any T20 World Cups - to a large extent," Bishop says. "It's become a great part of the game now, and that's another part of the game where the West Indies are going to have to get up to speed."
The warning signs had been there. The wider trend in T20 cricket away from yorkers and towards hard lengths had negated West Indies' historic strength of hitting down the ground. Lockie Ferguson had exposed that by blasting them out with his pace at Eden Park just under a year before the 2021 tournament. Few players in the West Indies squad play the ramp or the reverse sweep regularly, making it relatively easy to plan against them.
A batting line-up that looked ferocious on paper was feeble in practice. As Pollard made clear after last week's ODI series defeat to Ireland: "We have a batting problem in the Caribbean at the moment."
And the bowling was not all that hot either
There was no doubt that West Indies' batting cost them their first two games in the World Cup: no side has ever defended 55 in a full-length T20 international, and their 143 for 8 against South Africa was at least 15 runs short of par.
But their final two defeats, against Sri Lanka and Australia in Abu Dhabi, reflected the extent to which their bowling attack had declined: West Indies leaked 350 runs in 36.2 overs across the two games, taking only five wickets. In 2016, their bowling attack was strong enough to defend a par score more often than not; in 2021, the batters knew they needed to score significantly above par for the bowlers to have a chance of defending it.
"That didn't happen," Badree says. "The expectation was that the batting would give the bowlers that sort of cushion. Maybe that put an additional burden on the batting - and we saw what happened with that throughout the tournament. At the moment, we don't have those types of bowlers in this format who are wicket-takers, we have more defensive bowlers. That's what won us those two titles: we had bowlers who could take wickets during the powerplay, through the middle and at the back end."
From the Super 12s stage onwards, no team took fewer wickets than West Indies' 16; in 2016, by contrast, they were the tournament's leading wicket-takers from the Super 10s onwards. Wickets in T20 cricket are more valuable the earlier they come in the innings, but West Indies managed only six in the powerplay across their five matches in 2021 - three of them against an England team batting ultra-aggressively, looking for a net-run-rate boost in pursuit of 56.
Mahela Jayawardene, the Mumbai Indians coach who has worked extensively with Pollard, highlighted the lack of a genuine fast bowler and of either a mystery spinner or a wristspinner in the squad, but selection and availability were significant problems. Sunil Narine's two-year absence from international cricket extended into the World Cup; fitness was cited as the reason for his absence, though there was talk he was not confident about his action passing un-scrutinised. Obed McCoy, the highly rated left-arm seamer, was injured after the England game
Hayden Walsh Jr, the legspinner, was clearly not the finished article. But he was selected for nine out of West Indies' 17 home T20Is heading into the World Cup, and took 12 wickets while conceding 6.87 runs an over. Picking him in only two out of five Super 12s games, while Akeal Hosein, a late replacement in the squad for the injured Fabian Allen, played in all five demonstrated the inconsistency in selection.
"West Indies played close to 18 T20s leading into that World Cup," Badree says, "but when they selected their final XI in the first game, it said to me that they hadn't really got what they'd wanted from those games: they didn't know what their best XI was. Leading in to the next World Cup, we have to use them strategically."
Ravi Rampaul had not played a T20 international for six years before the World Cup but was thrown in at the last minute at the age of 37 on the back of a strong CPL season; he took two wickets in four games. When McCoy was ruled out, he was replaced in the squad by Jason Holder, only a travelling reserve despite consecutive strong IPL seasons. Holder then went straight into the playing XI, leapfrogging Oshane Thomas, who had been part of the original squad.
Selectors Roger Harper and Miles Bascombe have since left their roles. Desmond Haynes and Ramnaresh Sarwan, who have replaced them, must make it a priority to ensure that their decision-making is internally consistent.
How about a domestic tournament other than the CPL?
After the defeat to Sri Lanka, Pollard expressed his frustration at what he saw as structural issues within West Indies cricket. "It's something that has plagued us over a period of time, for the last ten years or so: we've had sort of the same guys playing T20 and dominating as we go along," he said. "It's the end of a generation, but there needs to be a lot of conversation on how you're going to make the transformation from club cricket, or even CPL, to international cricket, because there's a big step up."
In particular, Pollard highlighted how, since the start of the CPL in 2013, there has been no intermediary tournament to provide a stepping stone between club level and the CPL. "We need to have [a] tournament other than CPL where we can unearth new talents," he said. "When we had the Caribbean T20 [which ran from 2010-13, without overseas players], that was an opportunity to bring you talent from different parts of the Caribbean to be able to have the nucleus for this last generation or so... Since CPL has come in, yes it's a franchise-based system, but we've only had the opportunity to recycle the same players over and over again."
"Other countries have a sort of feeder system but we don't," Badree says. "That means it's the same guys you're seeing year after year: Lendl Simmons, Andre Fletcher, Johnson Charles and these guys. We're not seeing our young batsmen coming through because they're not given an opportunity. As it is now, if you're not known personally to a captain or a coach or an owner, you're not going to get selected, and young players are suffering because of that."
The age profile of the 2021 World Cup squad reflected Badree's point: of the 15 players available for the first game against England, only four were in the sweet spot between 26 and 32 where most players can be expected to peak. Of them, only Evin Lewis had more than 60 T20 appearances in his career.
That split between the senior players and young talent could be attributed to the lack of a high-quality tournament in the region in the years between 2008 and 2013. While the disgraced Allen Stanford is despised by most West Indians, many players concede that his regional Stanford 20/20 tournaments in 2006 and 2008, and the Superstars team that played England in 2008, had a level of professionalism that had not been seen previously in West Indies limited-overs cricket.
The Trinidad and Tobago side captained by Ganga and featuring the likes of Badree, Bravo, Narine, Pollard and Lendl Simmons starred in the Champions League in 2009, and won numerous short-form opportunities around the world as a result. But the generation coming through from 2009 through about 2013 - the likes of Holder, Lewis and Kyle Mayers - cut their teeth in the inter-island Caribbean T20, where a large number of teams and the absence of overseas players meant a wider player pool but a diluted standard.
In the years since, the CPL has provided high-quality competition for those who have managed to earn contracts. Introducing a new inter-island competition alongside it would replicate the model seen in, for example, India, Pakistan and England, where the elite-level short-form competition (the IPL, the PSL and the Hundred respectively) is underpinned by a domestic tournament (the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, the National T20 Cup and the Vitality Blast), meaning young players have the opportunity to cut their teeth at a lower level before making the step up.
In practice West Indian cricket's financial situation means the imminent introduction of such a tournament is unlikely. Unusually, the CPL bought the rights to host short-form cricket from CWI (then the WICB) in 2013, meaning that any other league would have to be run in partnership with the CPL. While that might be seen to create an unnecessary barrier, the lack of commercial viability is the bigger stumbling block for a secondary league.
Bishop says that while the CPL has been outstanding in revitalising certain facets of the game in the Caribbean, it does not necessarily provide opportunities to unearth young players from the level beneath the franchise system. "In franchise cricket, teams are privately owned and owners are looking for performance, so there is limited room for players to cut their teeth.
"We need to have either an academy for CPL to unearth and develop more T20 players, or a feeder system and scouting system throughout the territories to find more young players, including a lot of batsmen, to come into CPL and perform. If you could spend time in a club system in Barbados, Guyana, Trinidad or wherever, there are young players. They just haven't been given an opportunity to develop as quickly for this particular format."
Bishop cites the example of Justin Greaves, the Barbados batter who made his ODI debut against Ireland last week but, at 27, has faced just 110 balls in his eight-match T20 career. "You want to win the CPL but you also have to look at the bigger picture [which is] the development of West Indies cricket," Bishop says.
There is also a long-standing debate about the merits of West Indian involvement in global T20 leagues, held up as a strength when they were twice World Cup winners but often now framed as a problem. Young players often face a trade-off: should they play across formats for their island or region, developing long-form skills that might transfer into their T20 game, or expose themselves to foreign conditions and new environments, earning significantly more money in the process?
"If players are getting offered big money to play in a league here, a league there, and then West Indies have a couple of smaller tours clashing, how do you say to a couple of young men: you forego thousands of dollars, take a chance, and sit here as we build for something?" Bishop says. "These guys - Romario Shepherd, Odean Smith - haven't earned a great deal of money yet..
"The West Indies aren't a wealthy cricketing nation [but] New Zealand have the same challenges and handle it well. Sri Lanka have the same challenges."
At the same time, leading West Indies players have lost a competitive advantage. While other boards were initially reluctant to make their players available for global leagues, they have increasingly recognised the benefits, meaning that West Indians no longer dominate the overseas player pools in franchise T20 the way they once did.
As noted in Cricket 2.0, Freddie Wilde and Tim Wigmore's history of T20 cricket, the seven players with the most T20 appearances from 2012-16 were all West Indians; from 2017-21, they had only eight of the top 50. Before 2016, West Indian players had been ahead of the curve, picking up on trends and sharing information with their international team-mates, but since then, others have caught up.
Rebuilding for 2022 (and 2024)
West Indies have nine months to turn their T20 fortunes around before this year's World Cup in Australia, a task akin to running a marathon in half an hour. They are due to play 22 T20Is before the tournament starts in mid-October, starting with a five-match series against England in Barbados this week.
Their first series after the World Cup ended in a 3-0 defeat to Pakistan last month - though that scoreline is worth taking with a pinch of salt, given the availability crisis in the squad due to a Covid outbreak. Since then, Lewis has been ruled out of the England series due to a positive test, McCoy is injured, and several players, including Shimron Hetmyer, Sherfane Rutherford and Narine are among those who did not meet the fitness criteria.
Bishop identifies two players as the key men step up: Pooran and Hetmyer. "They should take centre stage," he says. "They've been invested in, they've been around the scene now for however many years, playing in the IPL, playing internationally. They didn't perform up to what I expected in the World Cup - they weren't the cause of the poor World Cup, but now, in their mid-20s, is the time for them to stand up and say we can be two of the best players in the world game, following in the footsteps of the players who are the gold standard."
Both players are in their mid-20s and have been involved in the set-up for a similar length of time but are at different stages in their development. Pooran has drifted in and out of form over the last two years but is the T20I team's vice-captain and one of the world's most dangerous middle-order batters on his day. Hetmyer has generally batted at No. 4 for West Indies in T20Is and excelled as a finisher in the 2021 IPL for Delhi Capitals, but his fitness has been a major sticking point and Phil Simmons, the head coach, said he was "letting down himself and his team-mates".
"Sometimes I wonder if he himself knows how talented he is," Badree, who has worked with Hetmyer at Delhi, says. "To get the sort of success that he got at such an early age, not everyone can deal with that… it might be a distraction for him. I really want someone close to him to guide him down the right path.
"I'm hoping Shimron Hetmyer has an epiphany, because he can be a world-class talent if he wants to," Bishop says. "If he can get his fitness going, he will take his game to another level. But to do that, he needs to get himself to optimum fitness levels, because that carries you at international level."
West Indies are also bringing through three promising seam-bowling allrounders who have excelled in the CPL and should win opportunities against England: Odean Smith, Shepherd, and Dominic Drakes (whose father, Vasbert, played 46 matches for West Indies between 1995 and 2004). Jayden Seales and Alzarri Joseph are both reserves for the series, and the Jamaicans Rovman Powell and Fabian Allen are both looking to secure spots in the lower middle order - where West Indies enjoy more depth than most international sides.
"I'm seeing depth in the bowling but the batting depth, we are still searching," Bishop says. "I'm seeing more promise in the bowling, but that still needs time with Bravo gone, and one or two others. Whether a year [between World Cups] is enough, only time will tell, but it must be a long-term venture. What we must acknowledge from a Caribbean perspective is that these guys still need time."
Badree highlights the 2024 World Cup, which West Indies are due to co-host with the USA, as a more realistic target than this year's tournament. "Australia will be tough," he says. "Much bouncier pitches than we're accustomed to, and some massive boundaries. But if these young players can really develop their games over the next two or three years then there's no reason why in 2024, we can't win that title on home soil."
The luck of the draw
The accepted wisdom in West Indies cricket is that the failure to defend their title in 2021 was a long time coming: results in bilateral series had been poor, key players were in decline, and structural problems were not conducive to creating a side capable of competing against the best teams in the world.
But World Cups are short tournaments where the narrative can shift quickly. West Indies were infamously written off as "brainless" before their title in 2016 and widely considered too inconsistent to stand a chance, while India entered the 2021 tournament as strong favourites and were eliminated in the Super 12s after being thrashed in their first two games.
Gaurav Sundararaman, West Indies' analyst in the 2016 World Cup and now a senior stats analyst at ESPNcricinfo, says that T20 World Cups are "almost a lottery" given how short they are and the importance of the toss and venues. In 2016, West won six tosses out of six and chose to bowl every time, winning their five games under floodlights and losing to Afghanistan in the daytime; in 2021 they lost four tosses out of five, and were forced to bat first in all of them in a tournament were the toss was disproportionately important.
"West Indies can win the World Cup in 2022 if things go their way," Sundararaman says. "If they play at the right grounds on batting wickets and win the toss, they can. Nobody is going to criticise Pakistan's or South Africa's performance in 2021. What [West Indies] can do is set the path right and hope they go there, perform and make the semis [because] after that, it's anybody's game. It's just the way the World Cup is. In 2016 they were very lucky; in 2021, they weren't lucky at all."
Bishop shares a similar view: that if things click for a four-week period, anything is possible. "Who put their hand up six months ago and said Australia are going to be winning the 2021 T20 World Cup? Outside of Australia, nobody," he says. "I'm excited about what the West Indies can do. I'm excited about the raw talent; I'm not going to write them off and say that they can't compete.
"There must be a long-term view to whatever we do. Phil Simmons and the board are going to try to develop these guys as best as possible. They'll give it their all for this World Cup. The eight, nine months that they have, they have to give the team the opportunity to learn. They'll play overseas, they'll play together, they'll play apart - but it could be a very exciting team."

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98