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GROS ISLET, St Lucia, Feb 8, CMC – A series that began shrouded in uncertainty and contention now stands on the brink of becoming a watershed moment in West Indies cricket, as the reinvigorated home side chase their first whitewash of England in 33 years, when the final Test bowls off here Saturday.
Only a few weeks ago in the lead-up to the opening Test, pundits were harbouring thoughts of just the opposite – another Windies whitewash – as controversy swirled over the appointment of head coach Richard Pybus and Cricket West Indies officials bickered in public.
But the underdogs, with heavy defeats in their previous four Tests against India and Bangladesh, hauled themselves off the mat to inflict a crushing 381-run victory inside four days in the opening Test at Kensington Oval – outplaying the English in every department.
And, as if to send a strong signal the result had not been a fluke, West Indies thrashed the tourists by 10 wickets in the Antigua second Test in less than three days last week, to retake the Wisden Trophy for the first time in a decade.
Now, even more history beckons. Not since Vivian Richards and his aggressive battery of fast bowlers humbled England in all five Tests on the 1986 home tour, have West Indies swept their arch-rivals in a Test series.
And with England demoralised after two embarrassing results, the young Windies side have the ideal chance to inflict the ultimate blow on their opponents.
They will have to do it without their inspirational captain Jason Holder who paid for his team’s slow over-rate in the Antigua Test with a one-match suspension, and now will have to watch from the sidelines as his side chase history.
Stand-in skipper Kraigg Brathwaite believes a clean sweep would send the right message about the state of West Indies cricket.
“[It would say] that West Indies cricket is strong,” the experienced opener told reporters here Friday.
“For us, it’s just aiming for consistency. We’ve won the series thus far so we’re aiming to win the third [match] but for us it’s being consistent. That’s one of the main things for us.”
He added: “It looks a good pitch. St Lucia is usually a good pitch for both and batters and bowlers so we’ve just got to continue working hard as a team, both as a batting group and bowling group.”
Holder’s absence will be huge hole to fill. It was his phenomenal unbeaten 202 which set up his side’s massive win in Bridgetown, and his splendid spell after lunch on the third in Antigua, that helped set the wheels in motion for England’s second innings demise.
Performance on the field apart, his leadership has come in for praise from local and foreign pundits alike, as he has hardly put a foot wrong.
Brathwaite said they would still be relying on his advice even though he was not part of the XI.
“Of course [I’ll be leaning on him]. He’s the leader of the group and his advice will be crucial for us,” said Brathwaite.
“He’ll still be there. Obviously we’re a family and support each and everyone. Obviously I’m captain for this game [but] he’ll be around the same way.”
Speculation is already rife about his replacement. All-rounder Keemo Paul, with 20 wickets and an average of 35 with the bat in his last three first class matches, seems the natural fit.
However, with England obviously unnerved by the pace of Shannon Gabriel and Kemar Roach in the series, uncapped Oshane Thomas has come into the equation, especially with a greenish tinge on the pitch at the Darren Sammy Cricket Stadium.
Brathwaite said the final XI would be decided later Friday but endorsed Thomas has genuinely quick.
“Obviously he has good pace and obviously he brings that aggression and he’s bowling consistently so he’ll bring that as well. He has decent pace so obviously he’ll be an aggressive factor,” he pointed out.
He added: “Obviously they didn’t play the pace as they should but for us it’s just to do the things we’ve been doing well. We can’t think about what happened before, that’s gone.
“For us as a bowling group we just have to stay disciplined, keep the aggression same way and that will be good for us.”
WEST INDIES – Kraigg Brathwaite (captain), John Campbell, Shai Hope, Darren Bravo, Roston Chase, Shimron Hetmyer, Shane Dowrich, Keemo Paul, Kemar Roach, Alzarri Joseph, Shannon Gabriel, Shamarh Brooks, Oshane Thomas.
ENGLAND – Joe Root (captain), Moeen Ali, James Anderson, Jonny Bairstow, Stuart Broad, Rory Burns, Jos Buttler, Sam Curran, Joe Denly, Keaton Jennings, Ben Stokes, Mark Wood.