West Indies can beat England against the odds, but they’ll need their pace bowlers to perform.
The blueprint – Bridgetown 2015. 1-0 down in the series, with a first innings deficit of 68, the West Indies were about to be batted out of the Test. Hearing a wicket fall, a reveller in the Party Stand asked “Was that Trott or Cook?” and was baffled to learn that it was in fact Root, and England were 28-4. The new ball had done the damage, and by the time 20 overs had been bowled it was 39-5 and the game was back in the balance.
West Indies were eventually set 192. Darren Bravo marshalled the batsmen to the target with five wickets in hand. The hosts had accrued only three scores over 30 in the Test, but somehow pulled off an unlikely victory, and drawn the series 1-1.
With that surprise firmly in mind, let’s make some informed predictions for the upcoming series.
1) One spinner is the right choice. This decade the average is 32 for spinners, 26 for pace bowlers. It may be that pitches are turning more than they used to, and it’s true that spinners get 37% of wickets in the Caribbean, but this turn hasn’t delivered cheaper wickets. That said, if a team can reliably judge a pitch as more spin friendly than the average West Indian pitch, then they should go with two spinners – selectors just need to be sure there will be more in the pitch for spinners than quicks before making that decision.
2) West Indies’ best chance will come if their fast bowlers can keep England under 225 in one innings. Turning pitches or not, the West Indies have no elite spinners. If they are going to win this series it will be through devastating fast bowling.
They are unlikely to amass buckets of runs – so Holder’s bowling unit needs to neutralise England’s batting. Specifically, if England score fewer than 225 in one innings, that sets up a target within the range of the West Indian batting.
Taking all factors into account, modelling suggests the probabilities for the first test are: 24% WI. 7% Draw. 69% Eng.
That translates to a one-in-three chance of England managing back to back whitewashes away from home. The last time England achieved that? 1889.
West Indies will probably lose: their batting and spin bowling is inferior to England’s. But if we’ve learned anything from the 2015 series, it’s that home advantage is real, and the new ball could do some serious damage, leaving mystified England supporters to ask “was that Burns or Jennings?” as Stokes returns to the pavilion.