When he was a boy, Jason Holder famously appeared in Fire and Babylon, the film celebrating the apotheosis of West Indies Test cricket. One part of this story was the pace and bounce of the Caribbean pitches.
At the start of 2016, Holder - both a brilliant cricketer and, to last for five years as Test skipper, an astute diplomat - railed against how far these pitches had given way to attritional surfaces. “We need to work a little bit more on improving our pitches,” he said. “And the viewing of the cricket would be a lot better.”
In the domestic one-day tournament, “the ball has spun quite early and quite sharply,” Holder lamented. “I've found it very difficult so far batting in this tournament, in the middle overs especially, and trying to get the ball off the square. I think spinners are dominating.”
In the 2015/16 Caribbean first-class season, 63 per cent of all wickets were taken by spinners; even in India’s Ranji Trophy, the figure is only 40.4 per cent since 2015. Many of these Caribbean spinners were not even particularly good, which is how Roston Chase was often picked as the West Indies’s frontline Test spinner.
“We were seeing pretty much right through the pathway, a real dominance from slow bowling across the region,” says Jimmy Adams, the West Indies’s director of cricket. “The feeling was that it wasn't necessarily because of the quality of the spin bowling.”
Pitches had become slower and lower from as early as the late 1990s when he was playing, Adams recalls. Richard Pybus, his predecessor as director of cricket, began trying to bring pace back in the Caribbean in 2014, when he appointed Kent Crafton as Cricket West Indies’s first regional curator.
“That had been one area we hadn’t given much attention to,” Crafton says. “I went around to all the different islands… We saw the problems and we came up with a plan.”
Crafton organised regional workshops with regional head groundsmen to share best practice. His instructions at the meetings were simple: “more pace and more consistency of bounce”.
“We put a very strong emphasis on pitch maintenance because that was the major issue I recognised - out maintenance regimes were really really poor,” he explains. “A lot of the squares were not pure, they were contaminated with organic material and were not level."
There were other wider issues to address too. The pitches were too dry - “we encouraged the curators to grow grass on the squares and also to maintain the grass” - and many grounds used the heavy roller too much, which nullified pace and bounce.
About a month before each home Test, Crafton travels to the ground to see the state of the wicket. He then returns in the immediate build-up, leaving each venue after day one of a Test to travel on to the next venue.
As well as his meticulousness, the mere fact of Crafton's position is significant. “Culturally, it meant moving people away from a mindset that almost looks down on pitch curators - to understand that they have a really vital role and to get the local franchises to start looking at things like remuneration,” says Adams.
Crafton’s work was married to wider changes. In 2011, the West Indies became only the second nation after England to use the Dukes ball for home matches; the bigger seam is regarded as offering more assistance to seam bowlers than the Kookaburra.
More radically, Cricket West Indies reformed the points system to encourage pace bowling. When he was West Indies head coach, from 2010-14, Ottis Gibson suggested that bonus points be introduced in domestic cricket, awarding extra points for wickets taken by quicks. Bonus points for pace wickets are now awarded in regional youth cricket.
Since 2016/17, teams have earned 0.2 bonus points for each wicket taken in the regional four-day competition through pace. The proportion of wickets taken by quicks began rising that year; last season, Barbados won the first-class tournament after taking more wickets with pace than anyone else
Such aggressive, even artificial, support for pace is not borne of nostalgia. “It’s a little bit more cynical than that,” says Adams. “We need a supply of fast bowlers if we're going to be competitive in international cricket. How are we going to get it, especially given our recent history of spinners dominating statistically?”
Part of Adams’s answer has been more centralised support for the best young Caribbean players. “We were looking at tournaments and thinking, where are these players - not just fast bowlers - who we think are the next generation? And they're not being selected even at home.”
In 2018/19, the West Indies Emerging Team were invited to the Regional Super50 tournament; they won the competition last year.
A programme for young fast bowlers also began in 2017, with the region’s most promising quicks going to Antigua for coaching. “We can give a little leeway if the person doesn't have a million wickets - but they're showing us that, at 17 or 18, that can bowl close to 85 clicks.”
Caribbean bowling has always been far more multifaceted than the image of all-out pace suggests: think of Lance Gibbs, Garry Sobers’s two types of left-arm spin, Sonny Ramadhin, Alf Valentine and, in T20, Sunil Narine and Samuel Badree. But moving away from more subcontinental wickets may well be better suited to exploiting home advantage.
“At the moment, our batsmen are not to the level that we want them to be - then bank on your fast bowlers. I think it's a good strategy for now,” says Ian Bishop, the former West Indies quick bowler. “It's produced more attractive cricket as well.”
In 2018, Bangladesh - now a highly competitive side in subcontinental conditions - were skittled for 43 in Antigua. In the first two Tests of their series in 2019, England lost a wicket every 32 balls.
“Fast bowlers have had a good time bowling in our conditions,” Crafton reflects. “Our players - even the batters - feel more comfortable on the quicker pitches.”
The varied and hostile pace attack who await England - perhaps the West Indies’s best pace battery since the mid-1990s - are fruits of concerted attempts to revive quick bowling. The Caribbean pace resurgence has been written from the ground up.