Ben Gardner reflects on a supreme display of skill from Jason Holder and what England should learn from it.
England 50-3 and then 90-5. Ben Stokes doing what he can to hold them together. A trio of fraction-too-short new ball spells in which oohs and ahhs were much more common than appeals and celebrations. Welcome to the New Normal, it might feel familiar.
One thing, at least, that was genuinely novel was that one of those opening bursts wasn’t delivered by Stuart Broad, with the right-arm seamer left out of a home Test for the first time since 2012. It’s a decision that has been dissected more than the lone dead frog in an underfunded secondary school, but Jason Holder’s supremely skilful spell, which gave West Indies the ascendancy on the second day at the Ageas Bowl, offered reason to pull out the scalpel and take to the decaying amphibian once more.
Nothing about the West Indies skipper’s performance, as he claimed 6-42, the best figures by a captain against England since Imran Khan in 1987, was actually surprising. He has been exceptional for a long time, and spoke at length after play about how he outfoxed Ben Stokes, the turning point of the day.
“It was a big wicket to get,” Holder said. “Stokesy was looking quite set. We put down two chances and he was looking to make us pay for them. When I came on, his partnership with Jos was starting to blossom, and it was important to break that partnership quickly and not let it materialise into something that could really hurt us.
“I just wanted to be really consistent to him. He was pretty settled and countering the line that we were bowling by walking across and walking down. I was getting just enough movement there to keep him at bay, and I wanted to keep him playing.
“He was just trying to offset our lines, and a little bit on our lengths too. I think he was trying to get outside the off stump, and force us to either bowl at his pads or to take the ball wider so he could leave.
“We were pretty much getting the ball to shape away, but I just wanted our bowlers not to leave the stumps and force him to play off the front foot. The pitch didn’t really have enough zip for us to be consistently bowling short, and when you bowl short at him, you take more modes of dismissal out of the equation. Yes, he did top-edge a pull, but for me that was more of a length ball that he really didn’t get on top of from Alzarri – and Alzarri has that pace that he can definitely put him back.
“So I just wanted our bowlers not to get thrown off by it, but to keep him playing. One of the criticisms I had with our bowlers yesterday was that we maybe didn’t make England play enough, but I think today we did a much better job in making them play, and obviously we got the results.”
Holder has expanded his array of skills to become one of the most complete seamers in the world, utilising the crease width to prod and probe. His explanation to Sky Sports of how watching James Anderson, on 499 Test wickets, bowl a full over of outswingers at Devendra Bishoo from the non-striker’s end in 2017 helped him learn the art of patiently working over a batsman only demonstrated further both his willingness to learn and his capacity to take the right learnings away from any given moment.
He doesn’t possess any great pace, but, as a graphic from CricViz showed, in virtually every other metric – swing, seam, release height – he’s unmatched. Broad – tall, skilful, and dashing – is the most similar bowler to Holder England possess, and while there is no guarantee he would have achieved the same level of success, the Bajan is far from the only example of a medium-fast bowler wreaking havoc in England in recent years, with Tim Murtagh and Mohammad Abbas both showing you don’t need pure speed to produce results.
And yet it seems it’s that factor that counted against Broad in a much-deliberated selection dilemma, with stand-in captain Ben Stokes citing the fact that the pace of Mark Wood and Jofra Archer “adds another dimension” as the reason for excluding the man with more Test wickets than all but one other Englishman.
In one sense, he’s right, but, apart from giving batsmen less time to react, that extra dimension is largely the vertical one, and whereas Down Under some extra bounce means the ball threatens your throat and your heart, in England, where the nibble and movement makes batsmen look for any reason to leave the ball, some additional upward velocity can actually be a hindrance for quicks.
England’s desire for pace in their attack is nothing new, and was demonstrated again by the inclusion of Olly Stone, with seven County Championship wickets at 38.57 in 2019, in their reserves for this Test, with the slower but more prolific Jamie Porter, who has claimed 181 Championship wickets at 21.68 since the start of 2017, not even making a 55-man ultra-squad at the start of the summer. On home soil at least, there’s little evidence to suggest there is a true need for speed.
For all the talk of Wood’s lengthened run-up and dramatic improvement, and for all the mitigation provided by a string of injuries, it’s hard to polish a home average of 44.36 vigorously enough to get it close to Broad’s mark of 26.69.
It might be that the Durham quick’s selection in particular is made with one eye on Australia in two winters’ time, and India a season before that. There, extra pace really can be the difference, and Chris Silverwood et al. might want to give one of their fastest ever a chance to get used to the rhythms of Test cricket as much as possible by then, reasoning that, even if it slightly dents their chances of victory against West Indies, those are high enough to take a little damage. West Indies’ batting line-up, in which no one averages more than 35, makes a first-innings deficit far from a certainty, despite England’s struggles.
But England do have a history of underestimating West Indies, and, whether it be at the Kensington Oval in 2015, Headingley in 2017, or Barbados and Antigua in 2019, have rarely not been given reason to regret it. Now, with vital World Test Championship points on the line, even a 2-1 series win could have significant repercussions for the big shakedown ahead of next year’s Lord’s final. Such importance does the Ashes hold in the English psyche that it might be that a few dropped points and perhaps a missed chance at silverware is a price worth paying.
That 2019 reversal is particularly instructive, because there are several similarities between then and now. On both occasions England came in riding high on the back of three consecutive victories on foreign soil, and both times they backed the same methods and personnel to see them good in different climes. Back then, it was the retention of Keaton Jennings and Adil Rashid in pace-friendly conditions suited to neither. Now, it’s banking on that pace, rather than shying away from it, that could cost them.
Just over a year ago, it was Holder, with bat, ball, and spirit, who inspired West Indies to one of their greatest modern Test series victories. It is, of course, far too early to say whether something similar could transpire here. But he has already shown two things: the persistent value of good old line and length, and that any team led by him should never be taken lightly.