Cricket

In the ’80s and early ’90s, the West Indies produced some of the most fearsome cricket teams the world has seen. Can the brilliant fast bowler Shamar Joseph help the Caribbean rise again? By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Will rookie fast bowler Shamar Joseph’s heroics revive the West Indies?

Cricketers jumping in celebration by the boundary line.
Shamar Joseph is embraced by teammates after almost single-handedly securing the West Indies’ shock Test victory at the Gabba.
Credit: Albert Perez – CA / Cricket Australia via Getty Images

He wasn’t meant to be playing at all, much less playing like that. The previous day, a Mitchell Starc yorker had crushed the big toe of his right foot, ending his innings by starting some serious swelling. “Retired hurt” the scorecard read, and both a teammate and a medic were obliged to help Shamar Joseph from the field.

To hospital the 24-year-old went, where scans happily revealed the absence of a fracture. But the bruising was significant, and Joseph swallowed a few painkillers for relief. They weren’t enough. Early Sunday morning, the day his life would change, he couldn’t sleep in his hotel bed for the pain.

So certain was Joseph he couldn’t play, when he was called to the Gabba he left his playing gear behind in the hotel. He’d be there to merely watch, to support the boys. But his captain and coach had other ideas. In the post-match interview, Joseph explained what happened next: “I was in the dressing-room … in there with (just) shoes on, boxers and my hat, waiting for my clothes to come.”

His wound was dressed and more pain relief given. “I don’t know what kind of tablet it was,” Joseph said. “But it worked.”

It sure did. Chasing 216, Australia looked assured of victory at 2-113 against a side who haven’t won a Test match here this century. Joseph was yet to bowl, and was hobbling around the boundary in a blood-stained boot. But if they were to win this, their captain thought, they’d have to try their series debutant – the man who’d only played seven matches of first-class cricket ever, who had never played for his country before the Adelaide Test last month, and who two years ago was working as a security guard.

And so they tossed him the ball and everything changed. Short for a fast bowler at just 172 centimetres, but with the muscular physique of an NBA point guard and a beautifully smooth and unfussy action, Joseph bowled almost 12 consecutive overs of electric pace. Conspicuously faster now than in the first innings – one ball nearly clocked 150km/h – Joseph’s deliveries were varied, accurate and relentlessly aggressive. There were yorkers and bouncers, and plenty that sought the off-stump with glint-eyed intent.

With the exception of Steve Smith, who at last looked comfortable in his new role as opener, the extra pace undid most of the Australian batters. In fewer than 12 overs, Australia lost six wickets for just 62 runs – and Joseph took each one. It was now a Test match finale for the ages, and it was Australia that was limping to the dinner break at 8-187, requiring 29 more runs.

Oh, the drama. Upon play’s resumption, Alzarri Joseph dropped Nathan Lyon off his own bowling. The very next delivery, a little shorter, Lyon feathered behind after an impulsive pull shot – and then walked. He walked! Australia now required 25 runs with only a single wicket remaining.

A spectacular memory of the following overs will be Steve Smith’s ramp shot off a 140km/h delivery for six. Alzarri Joseph scratched his head. It was a freak shot, unlikely and glorious, and one that suggested Australia would likely win this still if Smith ignored the singles and kept the strike. For a time, it was possible Smith might simultaneously score the winning runs and make his century. 

But no. A single was taken from Shamar Joseph, leaving Josh Hazlewood on strike. Australia needed eight more runs. There were two balls left in Joseph’s over. He needed just one. Hazlewood’s off-stump was uprooted and Joseph kept running and running and running, there being no pain relief as great as the endorphins now flooding his nervous system. His dizzy teammates finally caught him on the boundary, hugging ecstatically. They had drawn the series, won their first Test in Australia since 1997, and watched the birth of a legend.

This obscure debutant, nursing a nearly fractured toe, had offered one of the great fast bowling displays seen in this country – and given us all a memorable Test climax. Shamar Joseph ended the final innings with 7-68, and was announced player of the series with 13 wickets and a tidy average of 28 with the bat. West Indies great Brian Lara, in town as a commentator, rushed more quantities of pain relief to the team’s dressing-room: two bottles of Moët & Chandon. “I feel like we won the series,” Joseph said minutes later. “Even though it’s 1-1, I feel like we won the entire series.”

And then, during the press conference a little later, Joseph said: “It’s my dream to play Test cricket for West Indies. There will be times when T20s might come around … [but] I will say this ... I will always be available to play Test cricket for West Indies, no matter how much money it takes or come towards me … I will always be here to play Test cricket.”

With this statement, Joseph added relief to his teammates’ pride: several of their higher-profile players, including Jason Holder and Kyle Mayers, had declined to join the team’s Australian tour, preferring instead to play T20 cricket in South Africa and the UAE.

 

For cricket fans of a certain age, lamenting the fall of West Indies cricket has become standard. From about the late 1970s to early 1990s, they were the best team on earth. They had some great batsmen, but they were distinguished by their quicks: it was as if the Caribbean had a magic factory for generating brilliantly intimidating bowlers. Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Joel Garner, Ian Bishop, Malcolm Marshall, Courtney Walsh, Curtly Ambrose. I caught the end of this era, and fondly recall the charm and ferocity of those sides. Ambrose was my favourite player in the world.

The West Indies won the first two World Cups, in 1975 and 1979. Between 1980 and 1995, the side did not lose a single Test series until Mark Taylor’s side arrived in the Caribbean. About then, the decline started. Modestly at first, and then precipitously. Since 2000, and up until the beginning of this year, the West Indies had won 44 Tests and lost 116. If you count only the Test matches against the seven other established countries, the record is even starker: 23 wins and 112 losses. Last year, the West Indies failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in its history, having lost to rank minnows the Netherlands, Zimbabwe and Scotland in qualifiers.

T20 is often blamed for decimating the Test side. Playing five-day cricket for your nation offers small change compared with the T20 club franchises in India, the UAE and South Africa.

But poor administration, inadequate development and a younger generation more besotted by other sports started the decline before the conception of T20. The fact Shamar Joseph received his first cap for his country in the year he turns 25 suggests the game’s development isn’t much sharper today.

All of which is why the West Indies’ win in Brisbane last week left Lara and his old teammate Carl Hooper in tears. This was a team featuring seven uncapped players, snubbed by several stars and who’d copped intemperate criticism from more than a few Australian commentators, who were presumably also lamenting the Windies of yore. “Let’s not beat around the bush, they were hopeless [in Adelaide],” Rodney Hogg, who played for Australia during the great West Indies era, said. “We should have two divisions now. We can’t have these weak sides coming out here … they’re pathetic.”

One match is just one match, but it’s hoped that it might signal something substantial for the future of the game in the Caribbean.

Also worth noting here is that, as the day-night Gabba match came to its historic conclusion, another thrilling Test match was ending in Hyderabad. After facing a gigantic first innings deficit, England returned to beat India on their soil by 28 runs – aided by the batting heroics of Ollie Pope, 196 in England’s second innings, and, like the West Indies, by an obscure bowling debutant – the left-arm off-spinner Tom Hartley, who took 7-62 during India’s second innings.

If the West Indies’ decline is frequently lamented, so too is Test cricket prematurely eulogised. But the game itself seems to me to be in rude health – its financing and administration is another question.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 3, 2024 as "Amazing pace".

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