On Tuesday, at Southampton’s Ageas Bowl, a day before international cricket returns after the pandemic-enforced hiatus, West Indies captain Jason Holder was busy fielding questions from reporters on Zoom. Amidst a raft of questions that ranged from dealing with the saliva ban and playing inside a bio-bubble, Holder also found himself answering on his captaincy.
“I guess my captaincy has been made easier because we have the likes of Kemar Roach, Shane Dowrich and Carlos Brathwaite in this team,” he said in a matter-of-fact manner. It was not just a case of a captain talking his team up ahead of an important series. Since he took over five years ago, Holder — with his calm and understated demeanour — has managed to inject a sense of purpose and direction in this team. Perhaps the crowning glory of his captaincy so far came in February 2019, when he led from the front with bat and ball to orchestrate a landmark Test series win against the Englishmen on home soil.
Since then, the 28-year-old has enjoyed a bit of a cult-like status in the Caribbean, with former players and pundits lavishing praise on him. “He is probably the most impressive captain of the West Indies since Sir Viv Richards,” Mike Atherton, former England captain and one of the most respected voices in world cricket, said about Holder during a recent Sky Sports Podcast. “He has a very different style, his dignity is quiet as opposed to Viv who was very much in your face, but he is a hugely impressive guy,” Atherton added.
In a sense, Holder is an antithesis to some of his predecessors, marrying steely determination to his all-round skill.
Holder, though, has not had it easy. It’s been a largely bumpy ride to the top. In fact, during the early days of his captaincy — he was thrust into the role at 23 — he cut a forlorn figure, seemingly incapable of extracting an ounce of inspiration from his team. Those were arduous days for West Indies cricket. Off the field, the players and the board were locked in a contentious contractual dispute. On it, the team lacked unity and competitiveness despite obvious talent and flair.
Holder, though, tried his best to get his team to perform as a cohesive unit. But his attempt to massage the bruised egos of some of the senior players came at a cost. With limited experience at the international level (he had played only 21 ODIs when he became captain), the early initiation into leadership took a massive toll on his performances. “When I took over, there were big names in the dressing room. Although I had a good relationship with most of them, I tried too hard to keep everyone happy. In doing so, I drifted away from my personal performances,” Holder told ESPNCricinfo.
The tipping point came in 2016 ahead of a tour to the UAE, when Courtney Brown, chairman of selectors, served him an ultimatum: “It’s now or never… if you don’t do well against Pakistan, this will be your last tour,” he recalled in that interview. West Indies lost that series 2-1, but Holder claimed his first five-wicket haul in their win in the third Test at Sharjah. He survived the axe and the Sharjah win boosted his morale, both as a player and captain.
“Before captaincy, I am a player and my performances must stand out. I must perform my role for the team,” Holder said during the Zoom call on Tuesday, before adding: “With bat in hand I’ve got to make runs, with ball in hand I’ve got to take wickets and in the field I’ve got to help the guys hold on to chances. “Leadership will come into effect after that and when I do perform well with the bat it sends added confidence in the dressing room.”
By 2018, Holder had grown in his role as a leader, and was more assured as a player. More than anything, having two experienced fast bowlers in Roach and Shannon Gabriel, along with the promising Alzarri Joseph, gave him the ammunition to claim 20 wickets and topple opposition teams on a more consistent basis. Over the last two years, this three-pronged attack, along with Holder himself, has harassed batsmen and claimed wickets at an impressive strike rate of 42.9, only second to that of India. During this period, West Indies have notched up series wins against Bangladesh and England at home, and against Afghanistan in India.
The emergence of such a potent pace attack has coincided with an upswing in Holder’s own performances. The all-rounder has claimed 53 of his 106 Test scalps in his last 11 Tests, at an average of just over 14. In fact, five of his six five-wicket hauls have come in this period. He has also been prolific with the bat, averaging over 42, including a career-best 202 not out on his home ground at the Kensington Oval in Barbados against England last year.
Ahead of the three-match Test series against England that begins in Southampton on Wednesday under the shadow of the pandemic, Holder exuded confidence about his pace attack. “They are the reason why we have been doing well in the recent past. We have been practising in England for the past four weeks now. These guys are really fit and raring to have a go,” Holder said during the Zoom call.
The pacers’ contribution notwithstanding, West Indies will also be banking on their captain to continue his stellar all-round contribution. If that happens, there’s a fair chance they can claim their first series win in England in 32 years.
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