Phil Simmons would have known what to expect when he took over two weeks ago as the latest West Indies head coach. West Indian himself, Simmons witnessed the game's decline in the region of his birth from afar while coaching Ireland over eight fruitful years; he may have had mixed feelings when the Irish defeated the West Indies in their first match in the recent World Cup but it was a learning experience as he prepared to shift addresses.
Jason Holder celebrates his century on Day Five on the first Test against England in Antigua on Friday. Pic:AP/PTI
As the West Indies repeatedly faltered on his first four days in charge of the West Indies for the first Test against England, his impressions gained from reading, and watching, would have been confirmed. Before the decisive fifth and final day, Simmons said: "We will learn more about the team tomorrow." What he did learn was what chief selector Clive Lloyd had foreseen when he and his panel chose Jason Holder as the youngest of all West Indies captains for the tough campaigns in South Africa and the subsequent World Cup in ODIs in Australia and New Zealand.
Lloyd described Holder, variously, as "one of the good, young players who we believe will form part of the long-term future", "a young man with a very bright future… a very good cricketing brain and the makings of a very good leader." It appeared overstated hype at the time. No more. Holder was widely lauded for his competence and character throughout the World Cup; his match-saving, unbeaten, unflustered 103 when all seemed lost midway through the last day at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium was further confirmation of Lloyd's assertion that he would be around for "a long time".
It was Holder's fourth Test, the 65th for Denesh Ramdin, the pair that thwarted England for two and a half hours in their seventh wicket partnership. As ODI and Test captains, they are the two players Simmons would automatically stick closest to as he eases into a position as tenuous as any in the volatile world of West Indies cricket; their level-headed application in the middle on Friday validated the leadership triumvirate.
Relieved to have escaped with a draw, there remained several of Simmons' new team's familiar failings. Most can be sourced to the collective lack of self-belief brought on by years of decline. Several times over the first four days, the West Indies held the initiative against opponents ranked five places above them on the International Cricket Council's register. Each time they let it slip.
England's precarious 34 for three before lunch on the first day mounted to 341 for five by close. Inspired fast bowling by Jerome Taylor and Kemar Roach, backed by Holder, limited the total next day to 399, the last six wickets tumbling for 58. At 276 for six, Jermaine Blackwood, another 23-year-old bright spark for the future, had passed his hundred with Holder as his partner. The West Indies were whittling away at England's total. Suddenly, the last four wickets went for 19, the last three for three.
The scenario was repeated when England batted again. The conversion this time was 57 for three to 333 for seven declared as the West Indies had neither the resources nor the will to seize the moment on a batsman's pitch. In the end, they were scattered across the outfield, tired and downcast, awaiting the declaration.
These were recurring themes.
South Africa were 57 for three in the first Test in Centurion last December; they eventually amassed 552 for five declared and won by an innings and plenty. In a tight contest in the deciding Test in Barbados last June, the West Indies took a lead of 24, reduced New Zealand to 68 for three but couldn't press the advantage. Brendon McCullum could close the innings at 331 for seven, securing victory on the final day as the West Indies batting faltered.
In South Africa, the West Indies low order was repeatedly blown away – the last four wickets for 17, the last five for 15, the last seven for 33. Starting the final day on Friday with a draw the only option, three top order batsmen succumbed to carelessness. Devon Smith battled impressively for three and a quarter hours for 65; his sudden attempt to clear mid-on from off-spinner James Tredwell was his first aggressive shot; fraught with unnecessary danger, it ended in mid-on's hands.
Marlon Samuels held himself in check for 45 minutes or so before he was unable to resist the temptation to go after Tredwell. The upshot was a couple of sixes, a four, a missed stumping and his dismissal at the opposite end, going after one wide of off-stump from Jimmy Anderson. It was not the first time such a talented, experienced batsman had wasted his wicket.
Blackwood was even more culpable than Smith and Samuels. For an hour and three-quarters the first innings century-maker settled to the task; then an inexplicable brain fade, a charge down the pitch at Chris Jordan, a wild heave and an edge to the keeper.
Next to me on radio commentary, Geoffrey Boycott was apoplectic over such madness. Eradicating such carelessness and restoring belief are now Simmons' main tasks. As Ottis Gibson before him discovered, there are a host of obstacles to overcome. But the draw in his first match in charge was a reasonable start. It was significantly different to what the heavy defeat that seemed certain nine over after lunch would have meant.
Tony Cozier continues to be the voice of West Indies cricket