Legendary Wes Hall, Joel Garner and others pressing for the injection of youth into the West Indies team might be anticipating too much. They won't know unless the selectors are bold enough to take the chance, writes Tony Cozier
Worried that the predominance of spin in its regional tournaments was 'impacting negatively on the production of fast bowlers for the West Indies team', the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) directed its cricket committee last June "to make further recommendations to prioritise the development of fast bowlers in the region and for the West Indies team'.
WI pacer Alzarri Joseph celebrates a wicket with wicketkeeper Tavin Imlach during the recent U-19 World Cup in B’desh. Pic/Getty Images
Whether or not purely coincidental, Alzarri Joseph, a powerfully built, 6 feet, 4 inches of genuine pace, has suddenly emerged to unsettle batsmen and ease the WICB's anxiety. The reasonable expectation is that his impact on the West Indies' triumph in the recent under-19 World Cup, beamed live on television throughout the Caribbean, inspires a revival of fast bowling, always the hallmark of the finest West Indies teams.
Joseph was clocked as delivering the fastest ball in the tournament, 147 kph/91.5 mph. He consistently hovered around the high 80s-90 mph. He claimed at least one wicket in each of his opening bursts.
Of his 13 wickets, four were bowled, with stumps ripped out of the ground, three were lbw and three caught by wicketkeeper Tavin Imlach off tentative edges or miscued hooks. Another was stumped in the final as the alert Imlach pinged the stumps with India's careless opener Rishabh Pant still out of his ground after letting the fourth ball he faced go through. It is not a notation to please any fast bowler.
Joseph carried similar feats for the Leeward Islands Hurricanes in the first-class Professional Cricket League (PCL) into the World Cup. On a helpful pitch at Windsor Park in Dominica, his return was seven for 46 against the Windward Islands last November.
The questions now arise as to whether his record merits his immediate elevation into the West Indies senior team for its next international engagement, the three-way ODI series with Australia and South Africa in the Caribbean in June to be followed by four Tests against India, or whether the selectors waver over his inexperience.
Stacked alongside the struggles of the two bowlers once regularly capable of 140 kph pace and above and with no other genuine contenders, such statistics must be Joseph's ticket through.
On the recent tour of Australia, Jerome Taylor and Kemar Roach, the only contemporary bowlers with over 100 Test wickets, made minimal impressions. Taylor's two wickets in four innings cost him 128.5 runs each; Roach, his clocking markedly down from his previous top speeds, took none. On his return to the Barbados team in the first-class PCL, Roach broke down in his fourth over and did not return.
Joseph's present position equates to that of Kagiso Rabada's in the 2014 under-19 World Cup. Fast and hostile, he was the key to South Africa's championship, just as Joseph was to the West Indies in Bangladesh. Their selectors wasted no time including him in the ODI and Test teams.
On his ODI debut, he scattered Bangladesh with figures of six for 16; now 20, he already has 24 wickets in six Tests (average 24.7) and 30 in 14 ODIs (20.13). Cricket's sky is his limit. Wes Hall, one of the famous West Indies tearaways of an earlier generation, is in no doubt that the same route should be open to Joseph. "Cricket is one area you take the chance of selecting raw talent," he says.
He was 19 and had converted from wicketkeeper at Combermere School in Barbados to fast bowler in the space of a year when chosen for the West Indies 1957 tour of England purely on his potential, pace and powerful physique. He didn't make the Test team, ending with 27 first-class wickets; it was a valuable experience.
"I really didn't know much about bowling, didn't even know how to hold the ball, but I took my time to learn the trade," he explains. When the West Indies next toured, for five Tests in India and three in Pakistan in 1958-59, Hall was a last-minute replacement for Frank Worrell. His 46 wickets in the seven Tests, including a hat-trick against Pakistan, the first by a West Indian, heralded the start of a 10-year career that ended with 192 wickets and a reputation as one of the game's fastest bowlers.
"I believe Joseph is much more advanced at 19 than I was," he says. "I first saw him bowling in the nets about two years ago in a feature on the Sportsmax television channel and right away was impressed. He has a strong action that helps his pace and his control. I'd be disappointed if he doesn't go on to lead the West Indies attack for the next decade or so."
Joel Garner would go even further than Hall with introducing young players. "If I had to take a chance, I would thrust two or three of you in at the deep end now. That's me," he told the under-19 World Cup champions at a welcome function on their return home.
Now president of the Barbados Cricket Association (BCA) and a WICB director, he said the team had "brought back energy and excitement to watching West Indies cricket again, even though it was at junior level." He himself had been 'thrust into the deep end' in the 1977 home series against Pakistan, aged 24 after just five first-class matches. He ended with 25 wickets on his way to an eventual 259.
Hall, Garner and others pressing for the injection of youth into the West Indies team might be anticipating too much. They won't know unless the selectors are bold enough to take the chance.
Tony Cozier continues to be the voice of West Indies cricket