If one were to ask cricket enthusiasts which teams in their opinion would most likely feature at the semi-finals of the cricket world cup currently underway, one would invariably hear the names of England, Australia, India, New Zealand or South Africa coming up in the conversation. Few would even consider naming Pakistan in their list of probable big four due to Pakistan’s propensity to be unpredictable at big-ticket ICC tournaments. However, not many have been talking enough about the West Indian side — the dark horse of this tournament. While it is still early days in the tournament, it has had its fair share of surprising results. England comprehensively beat South Africa and then lost to Pakistan in a closely fought encounter. South Africa lost to Bangladesh in a surprising result although admittedly the current Bangladeshi team is not a pushover. In fact, Bangladesh was almost near the finish line in its clash against New Zealand in a match Australia was expected to defeat Afghanistan by quite some distance and it didn’t disappoint. New Zealand blanked Sri Lanka in its opening game and Sri Lanka had to labor against Afghanistan for its victory. Amidst the din of all these results, one may want to pause and look at the performance of the Windies and try and understand as to why they are the dark horse in this edition of the world cup.
The warm-up game against New Zealand saw West Indies post a mammoth 421 riding on Shai Hope’s quickfire 101 off 86, Andre Russells 25-ball 54 with noteworthy contributions from Evin Lewis and Jason Holder as well. In their opening encounter against Pakistan, it looked as if West Indies had a plan worked out and they stuck to it with clockwork efficiency. Pakistani batsmen were peppered with a barrage of short balls. Closer analysis of the deliveries bowled by Windies against Pakistan reveals that nearly half of the deliveries bowled by them were either short or short of length deliveries which got them 7 wickets. Bouncing the opposition out as a strategy was exemplified by Andre Russell’s fiery 3 over spell in which 16 of the 18 deliveries were either short or short of length that got him the wickets of Fakhar Zaman and Haris Sohail-Talk about being faithful to a plan !! Although West Indies lost their match against Australia, the match saw the Windies have Australia on the mat at 79 for 5 in the first innings and while chasing the Windies were comfortably placed at 190–4 before Cummins struck and got rid of Hope. Australia does deserve to be lauded for the fightback that enabled them to post a really competitive total exemplifying the Australian spirit to win from any situation. However, Windies will be kicking themselves for not having delivered the knockout punches in the first innings or dropping Man of the match Coulter Nile when he was in his 60s. Again while chasing, it was lack of application towards the end of the game that saw the Windies clinching defeat from the jaws of victory. Having said this, they made Australia sweat through the game to achieve the victory and one of the major positives of the game was the way West Indian quicks rose to the occasion and unleashed a spell of fiery and hostile bowling almost reminiscent of the Windies of the late 70s, 80s and early 90s. Their intent to play aggressive cricket is quite clear.
So what makes the present West Indian side a dark horse? A simplistic way to answer this is that the Windies boasts of quite a few players with the ‘X-factor’ and imposing physiques who have the potential to transform the trajectory of any game especially in the shorter versions of the game. Let us look at some of these names
Chris Gayle: Standing at 6'4 tall, Gayle has the ability to destroy any bowling attack with so much ease and panache that his very presence is psychologically quite intimidating to any opposition. Gifted with immaculate hand-eye coordination, his ability to hit sixes off good length deliveries at will is unparalleled and he has the potential to single-handedly make short work of any humongous total that experts predict may be the norms as the tournament progresses. With over 12000 odd runs in the shortest format of the game and over 10,000 runs in the 50-over edition at healthy averages and strike rates, Gayle is expected to capitalize on the field restrictions in the powerplays and give Windies the start needed to win matches. In addition to this Gayle has time and again proven that he can double up as reliable fifth bowler option for his side when the situation so demands.
Shai Hope: Ever since his debut against Sri Lanka at Harare in 2016, Shai hope has amassed over 2000 ODI runs at an average of 50.18 from 55 games. To put things in perspective, Shai Hope has become the fastest West Indian to reach 2000 runs. In the ODI series against India and Bangladesh in late 2018, Hope averaged a whopping 62.50 and 297 respectively. He has been in tremendous form and scored his highest ODI score of 170 in the recently concluded tri-series featuring Ireland and Bangladesh. With a relatively risk-free and self-assured style of batting Hope has gradually emerged as the mainstay in the middle order more often than not playing the sheet anchor role in many games. Hope has already shown that he is in good touch and his scores of 101 and 68 against New Zealand and Australia respectively being further evidence to his good run. Hope showed tenacity and resilience against a very tight bowling by Australia. Although his scoring was not as brisk as expected he brought back some order into West Indies’ chase after Australia got the first two wickets quickly. This is the sort of balance and sanity that Windies would ideally want to have in their arsenal to balance the flamboyance of a Gayle or Russell or Brathwaite down the order.
Andre Russell: Russell is a genuine fast bowling all-rounder who has increasingly become one of the most exciting cricketers to watch in the last couple of years. Having played over 300 T20s for various leagues around the world, Russell is considered one of the cleanest and most powerful hitters of the cricket ball in limited-overs cricket. His physique, regimen and freakish performances at fairly regular intervals induce one to consider that he is more of an athlete than a cricketer in the traditional sense. Last year, Russell managed to score a century and take a hattrick in the same Caribbean Premier League match. Prior to the world cup, Russell had lit up the IPL with his scintillating display of power hitting in many games. To put things in perspective and why Russell was the quintessential all-rounder for the Kolkata Knight Riders, one just needs to look at his stats in the tournament. He managed to score 510 runs at a strike rate of 204.81 and an average of 56.66 along with snagging 11 wickets. Nearly 61.2 % of his runs scored in the IPL were off 6s and he hit the most number of 6s and was ahead of the runner up Gayle by a fair distance. These are staggering numbers and any franchise or team wouldn’t have any hesitation whatsoever in playing Russell no matter what the playing conditions are. Against Pakistan, Russell’s three-over spell proved crucial, his barrage of bouncers claiming the wickets of Fakhar Zaman and Haris Sohail and exposing Pakistan’s middle order early. Against Australia too, he managed to get the wicket of in-form Khwaja and that of Alex Carey at a time when Carey and Smith were scripting a remarkable fightback. Russell would be probably ruing the opportunity he missed to take the Windies home against Australia, but he is still a force to be reckoned with this tournament.
Oshane Thomas: Oshane Thomas announced his World cup debut with a 4 for 27, while Andre Russell, Sheldon Cottrell, and captain Holder provided good support as the West Indies cruised to a seven-wicket win against Pakistan. Thomas’ good height, the jump he takes, and his pace coupled with a tight line, won’t make it easy for any batsman to cut loose. Earlier this year Thomas took 5 for 21 in 5.1 overs — his maiden ODI five-for — to be named Man of the Match, claiming four of his wickets as England lost 5 for 2 in 21 balls to end an innings which lasted just 28.1 overs. Effective use of the ‘chin music’ seems to be the WI team’s algorithm of success as the tournament progresses and Thomas is leading the pack and he is being ably assisted by Cotrell, Brathwaite, and Holder. Watching Thomas and the other West Indian quicks go about their business so far in this World Cup one is easily reminded of the West Indian style of hostile, aggressive, “take no prisoners” approach that was part of West Indian cricket from the days of Holding, Garner, Croft, Roberts to the days of Walsh and Ambrose.
All in all the West Indian side has many match winners. The inclusion of power hitters in the side like Andre Russell and Shimron Hetmeyer who can muscle the ball a long way has given the West Indies style of cricket a new outlook altogether. Players like Shai Hope, Darren Bravo have time and again proven their worth, anchoring the innings to perfection. A suave Chris Gayle can take the attack to the opposition in the company of the charismatic Nicholas Pooran, with Carlos Brathwaite a capable finisher. Captain Holder has also been delivering all-around performances. In the bowling department too, the young Oshane Thomas and the wily Sheldon Cottrell bowling in tandem have shown a lot of promise at the 2019 ICC Cricket World Cup.