Whatever else they got wrong in this series, one thing England definitely did get right was that they didn’t let the ECB chairman Colin Graves anywhere near a microphone in the run-up to it. They made that mistake in 2015, when Graves memorably described West Indies as “mediocre” before a series. A few weeks later, they bowled England out for 123 in Bridgetown, and won the third Test by five wickets. “Not bad for a mediocre team,” Jason Holder said afterwards. There’s an old lesson here, one England have been taught more than once over the years, never give West Indies another reason to want to beat you.
West Indies have won five of the 10 Tests the two teams have played since Graves’s quote, so by now England have learned better than to talk them down. But that does not mean there aren’t one of two players in this West Indies side with a point to prove. Only this time it’s their own side to which they’re doing it. Jermaine Blackwood, so keen to shrug off his reputation as a player who doesn’t have the right temperament to succeed in Test cricket, did it with that match‑winning hand in the first Test. Shai Hope, who hasn’t scored a Test century since he won the two he made in that famous victory at Headingley in 2017, is another, and he hasn’t managed it yet.
Then there’s Kraigg Brathwaite. He’s had a long, lean couple of years. He made his last Test century in a match against Bangladesh in Kingston two years ago, and since then his game has been in bits and pieces. Between then and the start of this series, Brathwaite played 20 innings without making a Test fifty. In that time he made 233 runs at an average of 12.26 (actually “average” is probably too generous a description for a figure such as that). Even so, the selectors have stuck with him. He’s the vice-captain of the team, and an old friend of Holder. They play at the same club in Barbados, and came up through the West Indian youth set-up together.
Which hasn’t gone unnoticed. Kieran Powell, who opened the batting with Brathwaite on West Indies’ last tour here in 2017, made a pointed observation about it on social media just a couple of weeks ago. He posted a photo of Brathwaite’s average in the past few years with the caption: “It’s interesting how the numbers stack up yet the consequences vary based on the player, one is just left to wonder what the numbers would be if I’d had the same amount of innings as others who continue to be offered opportunity after opportunity.” Powell was dropped in 2018 – he hadn’t made a century in 53 innings – but he’d been in good form in first‑class cricket since.
In fact, Cricket West Indies recently lost patience with Brathwaite too, and downgraded his central red-ball contract. They haven’t confirmed it yet because the announcement has been delayed by a hold-up with the paperwork. But next year Brathwaite will have to make do with a franchise contract, which is what they give to people who drop off the central list.
The decision must sting. Brathwaite’s almost unique in modern cricket because he doesn’t play Twenty20. Since the format started in 2003, he is the only Test batsman with more than 50 caps who has never played a T20 match at international or domestic level. Red-ball cricket is where he makes his living.
So there was plenty of pressure on Brathwaite coming into this tour. He spent a lot of time in the weeks before it talking to his mentor Desmond Haynes, the old Bajan opener. They have been close ever since Brathwaite was first picked for Barbados, when Haynes was working as the team manager.
It wasn’t technical stuff they discussed, Brathwaite knows exactly how he wants to play here in England – as late as possible from right back in his crease. It’s a method he has honed over three separate spells playing county cricket for Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, and Glamorgan. No, it was the mental side of the game that he and Haynes worked on together.
It has paid off. Brathwaite’s responded with two fine knocks, 65 in the first innings at the Ageas Bowl last week, and now another 75 here, this last put into perspective by the way the rest of the team collapsed when England took the second new ball. Here, Brathwaite hit down the ground more than he often does, as England’s bowlers pitched the ball right up to him, looking for swing. In the end it took Ben Stokes to winkle him out, during that 11-over stretch of short-pitched bowling, a short ball that popped back for a catch off the leading edge. Brathwaite will be back in and at it soon enough, the game, and the series, may just turn on whether he can do it again.