Last month, Jason Holder sat down at a London hotel with Phil Walker, editor-in-chief of Wisden Cricket Monthly, to discuss the series against England, how to manage Christopher Gayle, and weathering the slings and arrows of cricket’s toughest job.
It’s lucky that Jason Holder has broad shoulders. Four years have now passed since the West Indies captaincy was foisted on him. No matter that at the time he’d played just 21 ODIs and eight Test matches, with one Test century and a single three-for from his jangly seamers. Seeking some kind of break from its fractured past, the Windies brains trust made a lurch for youth, and Holder was the kid in the frame.
The chaotic backdrop to his appointment, first as ODI leader and then to the Test job, was the abandonment of the West Indies tour of India in late 2014. Holder had been on that one, watching on as the then-captain Dwayne Bravo led a walkout over a contractual dispute with the West Indies Cricket Board.
The chairman of selectors, Clive Lloyd, turned to one of the few players of genuine international class untainted by previous fallouts. From early Barbados youth teams to West Indies under 19s, Holder had captained every team he’d played in; at the unveiling, Lloyd spoke of his outstanding cricket brain.
Aged 23, the 15th youngest Test captain in history, Holder was handed the reins of a once-great institution turned world leaders in decline.
He insists he wanted the job. “It felt like the right thing to do at the time,” he tells WCM. “But it was so much to deal with.”
After two years he’d had enough. If not of the job itself, then of all the stuff around it. He’d seen coaches come and go, big names refusing to play, and pitched battles between the board and the players’ union. It was late 2016. His team were in the desert, locked in a three-Test series with a formidable Pakistan side.
“There was so much going on off the field. I just thought, ‘Look, man, I’m not gonna be able to deal with any of it if I’m not in this team’. I needed to get my performances going first. So I just shut it off. That was the turning point.”
The limited-overs stuff was a write-off, and the first two Tests were lost, though not before going into a fifth day. But in the third at Sharjah, Holder took his first five-wicket haul in Tests, propelling the Windies to a first overseas win in nine years.
Since Sharjah, Holder has led his team to six further wins in 15 Tests. In that time they’ve won two Test series, albeit against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, and, in 2017 at Leeds, pulled off one of the great modern upsets.
Inspired by Shai Hope’s twin centuries, the other miracle of Headingley was all the greater for that which had gone before it: an innings defeat at Edgbaston so abject that Michael Holding questioned their right to a three-Test series, Curtly Ambrose called them embarrassing and pathetic, and Geoffrey Boycott declared it the worst West Indies team in history.
He smiles wearily. These are just Holder’s working conditions. “I try not to take it on,” he says. “We’re here to play cricket, not take on the critics.”
Can he block it out, this churn of negativity? “I personally don’t hear it. People come to me with what other people have said. The comment Michael Holding said about us was pretty hurtful, him being a West Indian.
“Look, it’s tough, but I just put it all away. I can’t, I can’t… change it. I respect them for what they’ve done in the game, I’ve not been privileged to see it first-hand. They’ve had their era, they’ve had their time, it’s about us now. It’s about us trying to make our era, make our time.”
Somehow, in amongst it all, he’s compiling a formidable personal career. In six Tests across 2018, Holder took 33 wickets at the joke average of 12.39 with four five-wicket hauls, while with the bat, he carved out 336 runs at 37.33. He has emerged as a bowler in the Courtney Walsh-vein, tireless and insistent, propelled by duty, emulating the last bowler-captain of the West Indies in all but the devil that lurked beneath the genial surface.
Against India at Hyderabad in October, after chiselling 52 innings-rescuing runs, Holder took the new ball and jangled through 30 overs to claim 5-56, taking out Kohli along the way. Although a third-innings collapse put paid to the result, Holder became the first bowler since 2003 to claim 30 or more wickets in a calendar year at an average under 15.
He is currently ranked as the third-best all-rounder in the world – and he knows it. “That’s my biggest ambition,” he says. “To become the No.1 all-rounder in the world.”
The upcoming England series, which Holder has since declared himself fit and ready for, looms large. He knows that the Windies tend to raise their game against them, and having watched plenty of England’s Sri Lankan demolition, he’s aware just how much they will need to.
“I think it’s gonna be a good series, to be fair. The last series we played against them in the Caribbean [in 2015], we had a pretty good series. We drew the first in Antigua, they won the second in Grenada and then we came back and won at Barbados to draw the series.
“England are still in that phase where they’ve got a few youngsters at the top of the order, mixed with established players like Root, Buttler, Bairstow and Stokes. But apart from that, you’ve got young guys like Rory Burns and Keaton Jennings who are still just trying to make their mark.”
And the pitches? “I wouldn’t say a lot of pace, but they’ll be good pitches to get results from both ends. If you knuckle down you can get runs on them, and if you put something in, you’ll definitely get something out of it as a fast bowler. But, you know, the pitches we played on in our last two home series were reasonably good. A bit of variable bounce – for me, if I can get that out of the Caribbean I’d be a very happy man! But I think, all in all, they’re still pretty decent cricket pitches. I just hope they can continue to improve to make for better viewing for the public.”
After four years of slow steps and sapping setbacks, it’s hard not to detect behind the amiability and easy way with words a few jabs of indignation at the diffident nature of the culture he’s been tasked with rousing. We’ve met up in a central London hotel, just before Christmas. Holder is here for some Harley Street treatment on a dodgy shoulder and ankle – just general wear and tear, he says, a little cautiously. Our conversation takes place just two days after a Holder-less West Indies have lost a Test match to Bangladesh – and a week before they would suffer a monstrous innings defeat. It must take its toll.
“If you go back to most successful teams,” he tells me, “captains have been facilitators, creating the environment for people to share information, and express themselves freely. That’s where I’d like to get to. In our dressing room at present you don’t really have guys coming forward to be as vocal as they probably should. You almost have to pick players to speak.”
Holder is not helped by the revolving door allocated for coaches of the West Indies. His first overseas stint as captain saw Phil Simmons suspended for the tour for comments relating to selection, while the most recent incumbent, Stuart Law, has jumped to take charge of Middlesex. For all that he has a team of trusted people to fall back on – Lloyd, Brian Lara, Ian Bishop, Ezra Moseley – leadership can be a lonely existence.
“I want to get to a situation where, when we cross the line, I’m not looking over my shoulder to make sure people are doing what they’re supposed to be doing, fielding where they should be, doing what they need to be doing, and every man knows the ins and outs of their team and their teammates. As opposed to me having to always do it. I’ve got enough to worry about. The more captains we have out on the field, the easier the job becomes.”
It’s a far cry from Viv Richards’ shared collective consciousness. But one former captain he’s still hoping to lean on is Christopher Henry Gayle. Holder confirms that it’s “the hope and the intention” that Gayle opens the batting at next summer’s World Cup. “His body will dictate how far he goes.”
And his heart? “His heart is definitely there. We had a situation where he gave up going around the world to commit to playing in those World Cup qualifiers [in Zimbabwe last March] because he wants to play in another World Cup. That’s his goal.”
He’s easy to manage, he says. You just need to give him some flex. “You don’t tell him to do any shuttle runs, you just let him be cool and get on with what he needs to do.” He’s actually become rather attached to the old roustabout. “I’ve grown in respect for him. We sit down and have one-to-one conversations. He gives me lots of ideas and shares a lot of information on and off the field.”
Intriguingly, Holder, the man-boy who sacrificed the fun years for public duty, admits to a little envy at the big kid’s heady pursuit of pleasure. “The public perceives him as a party animal, and he certainly enjoys himself – I actually admire that in him. People often question how far he goes, but for a guy to be that age, to be as happy as he is, and still successful in cricket, I just think, ‘Let him be who he is’. Why change him?”
Holder is nobody’s fool. He doesn’t duck the issue of talent development in the Caribbean, seeing it as his responsibility to know his own mind.
“I don’t think it’s the ideal situation, where we can look back and say, ‘We’ve made the right choices and made the right decisions’. Financially it’s been tough for the organisation in terms of funding camps and workshops in which to develop our cricketers. The limited resources we have we tend to stretch as best as we can. I still think we spend a lot on expenses, and we can cut back on those, definitely, and find a bit more money to stretch into development… but I guess that’s beyond my control.”
He has further reservations, about the state of the first-class system. “I would like to see our franchise system run in the way it’s supposed to be run,” he says. “Proper full-time coaches, proper full-time strength and conditioning coaches, creating a year-long programme for our cricketers, so they know that if they’re selected for the West Indies they’ve done the hard work and laid the foundation.”
It is impossible to imagine any other captain in world cricket talking with this kind of authority on such prickly issues.
He doesn’t doubt the talent that’s kicking around. “I still see lots of youngsters playing cricket in Barbados, and all around the Caribbean,” he says. “I’d just love to see more done to help harness the passion.” He adds that junior club structures throughout Barbados have “improved significantly” compared to when he was a kid.
Living this life comes at a price. His time is rarely his own. “A vacation for me now is a home holiday. I live on my own, I’ve recently bought a house, I still head up to my parents’ house and spend time with them, off the radar, low key, out of the public eye.”
Even then, he says, smiling, he walks a tight line. “Barbados has the most cricket experts in the world, man, the most cricket experts. Within the Caribbean too, so… Everyone stops and shares their opinion, and it’s tough, you can’t push them aside – you’ve got to hear them and be more diplomatic than perhaps you’d like to be. I tend to send my mum out to get the groceries…”
Jason Holder has always seemed old before his time. It’s both his blessing and his curse. Even when he was just a boy on the beach, pounding in to bowl at the camera lens in the opening credits to Fire in Babylon, he looked fully formed and ready to go. Will he somehow end up doing this job forever? “Why not?” he grins, fleetingly tickled by the idea. Then he hardens once more. “I’ve quickly understood that everything has its time. I’ve had a really good time of it, you know? As a learning experience it’s turned me into a man. When I took over I was a little boy. Now I’m a man.”
This article first appeared in issue 15 of Wisden Cricket Monthly. Pick up a copy here