Jason Holder: Leading West Indies on and off the field

Holder has been leading the West Indies Test side for five years. His greatness lies in his belief, man-management skills and vision for the future.

Jason Holder’s nagging pace and movement fetched him career-best figures of 6/42 in the first Test against England that set the stage for a West Indies victory.   -  AP

The people of Barbados, better known as Bajans, are early starters in cricket. Sir Garfield Sobers first represented the island at 16. Sir Everton Weekes scored five consecutive centuries on the tour of India at 23. Jason Holder became the West Indies’ One-Day International (ODI) captain at 23, and within a year the Test leadership had come calling.

For five years, Holder has been leading a red-ball side that has struggled for consistency. But his self-belief and man-management skills deserve applause as this West Indies team wants to play, wants to fight and wants to show the world how it is done — like its seniors in the 1970s and ’80s.

So it was no surprise that Holder’s side became the first touring cricket team amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Like always, the team set an example of free spirit and a belief that the sport can fight any demon.

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The tour of England had a lot to do with Holder and his perspective towards the sport and the financial health of Cricket West Indies (CWI). Very few captains would have agreed to take the risk as the UK had seen close to 46,000 casualties at the time of the tour. On the other hand, the virus did not propagate much in the West Indies, with most islands reporting fewer than 10 deaths.

But then, most of the West Indies players have faced pay cuts because of the coronavirus’s effect on the global economy and sports. “The effects of this pandemic have been distressing for everyone. It is the worst crisis of our lifetime and we cannot be certain when the situation will be rectified,” CWI chief executive officer Johnny Graves had said in May.

Holder’s team won the first Test match that was played behind closed doors in Southampton. Though it lost the remaining two in Manchester, it clearly set the priorities straight. Cricket has to continue. CWI did receive a loan from the England and Wales Cricket Board before the series, but the chunk of the broadcast revenue remains with the home board, and Holder duly requested a return series from the ECB.

Even with scores of 16, 9, 25 and 7 in the first two Tests against England, Shai Hope had the trust of his skipper.   -  Getty Images

“We don’t know what’s going to happen after this series in terms of the international calendar. If there is an opportunity perhaps for England to come over to the Caribbean before the end of the year, I’m sure that would help significantly with Cricket West Indies’ financial records,” Holder told reporters after the completion of the series on July 28.

“It has been a tough last couple of years for West Indies cricket financially. We’ve had to take a pay cut as well due to the difficult circumstances we’ve been facing financially. A tour hopefully — if it’s possible — before the end of 2020 would probably put us in really good stead or probably keep us afloat as an organisation.”

Not a typical West Indian

Holder is not a typical West Indian. He doesn’t break into a dance after picking up a wicket. A few of his Indian Premier League (IPL) teammates say he isn’t into heavy partying either. The cricket ground is his pub and tasting victory is perhaps his only addiction. He is of the “fight till I die” mould.

A striking feature of Holder’s career is his commitment to Test cricket when every other West Indian is making big money in Twenty20 franchise cricket. He comes from a humble background and understands the ethos of the red-ball game. And he is the second-best all-rounder, after Ben Stokes, in Tests.

When asked about the psychological challenges of international travel and cricket in the times of a pandemic, Holder displayed no discomfort. Rather, his mind seemed prepared to ignore the news channels and social media to limit anxiety and panic. “It is great to be back playing cricket. It is massive for world cricket when you get back to entertain fans around the world. It hasn’t been easy. But we are here, enjoying our time so far, I don’t really get too caught up with the outside stuff,” he said.

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Holder leads from the front. His nagging pace and movement fetched him career-best figures of 6/42 in the first Test that set the stage for a Windies victory. It wasn’t just a spell; it almost seemed like he was out fishing off one of the pristine beaches of the Caribbean high on Mount Gay Rum. He made it look that easy.

Riding on confidence and positive vibes, Holder did not tinker with the team combination much; all the fast bowlers except Alzarri Joseph played the three Tests in quick succession. Joseph wasn’t part of the third fixture.

“We have been doing this for a number of years. It is a short turnaround time, but these guys have been in good form. We just have to push it to the next level. We have done reasonably well as a Test side in the last two to three years. I have full confidence in this team. We have to stick together, continue to learn and play in different conditions around the world.

“We did consider the workloads after not having played cricket for a while, but it was one of those decisions where you have to back your best team to do the job for you,” said Holder, who did not drop Shai Hope despite his poor form.

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Hope has two Test hundreds, both of which came in a winning cause in Leeds on the tour of England in 2017. The right-hander has grown as a prolific One-Day batsman since, but his red-ball performances have been considerably dry. But even with scores of 16, 9, 25 and 7 in the first two Tests, he had the trust of his skipper.

“Some of them haven’t been getting runs that they would like, but we have to give them full support. We know what Shai can produce at this level. He is one of the best One-Day batsmen in the world. I have full confidence in Shai to get some runs. He is special and he has my full support,” said Holder.

Some of the players looked mentally tired in the third Test, but Holder was in no mood for excuses. He understands this is the new normal and they can’t afford to lose more money. “We have to find ways to make it work,” he said.