CricViz analyst Ben Jones investigates the conditions of a region in which England have historically struggled.
The Caribbean has not been a happy hunting ground for the England Test team. Since 1968, they have triumphed in just one series when touring the West Indies, the 2004 victory led by Michael Vaughan. Since then, England have visited the Caribbean three times, lost two series and drawn a third, and have won just two out of 11 Tests.
Even since West Indies’ era of dominance has long come to an end, England have not only failed to win, but have found some fairly creative ways to lose. From being bowled out for 51 in Jamaica in 2009, to losing eight wickets to Roston Chase’s gentle off-spin in 2019, the narrative of England in the Caribbean has been one of peculiar humiliation and incompetence.
There are numerous reasons for their frustrations on these trips. The timing has occasionally been suboptimal (the 2009 tour was led by an interim leadership team, and the 2015 tour came in the aftermath of a historic and deeply damaging ODI World Cup campaign), and the series itself has often been undermined by prioritisation of other series.
However, from a statistical point of view, the issue for England in the Caribbean is a familiar one – their batting. Across the last decade or so, England’s record as a batting side in the West Indies is worse than in all countries other than Australia, and the United Arab Emirates. England’s batting is worse in the Windies than almost everywhere else, over a long period of time.
Specifically, England struggle against pace bowling in the Caribbean. Aside from the odd notable exception (arise, Roston Chase), it’s been the consistent inability of England’s batters to resist the Windies pace attack which has limited their performances on tour. The idea of struggling to combat West Indian quick bowlers is not a new one for English fans, but it remains an issue.
While the bowlers in question have been of a high standard in the past decade, with seamers like Jason Holder and Kemar Roach averaging comfortably below 30 in Test cricket, the conditions play a huge role in England’s issues. While the stereotype of Caribbean pitches being fast and nasty has not always remained true – at times around 10 years ago, more spin than pace was being bowled in West Indies home Test matches – the nature of the cricket played on these islands is distinct and almost unique compared to other countries around the world.
For one thing, the Caribbean sees more lateral movement for the quicks than anywhere else. Recent years have seen an average of 1.2 degrees of swing movement, and 0.7 degrees of seam, ranking in first place for all Test nations in that time. What’s more, the identity of the country in second place – England – does highlight the influence of the Dukes ball. While the West Indies use a slightly modified version, harder and more durable in order to cope with the abrasive surfaces, it still acts in much the same way as the ball English fans have grown used to seeing in home Test matches. The weather might offer a slightly different spectacle – and a more appetising environment for fans – but the challenge for batters facing the swinging and seaming ball is not dissimilar.
However, where the two sets of conditions pull apart is the effectiveness of short balls. In the UK, deliveries pitching 9m or further from the batsman’s stumps average over 40, essentially an option only to be used as a variation, or to push a batsman back into their crease for other modes of attack. In the West Indies it’s rather different, with those deliveries averaging almost exactly 30. With pitches (in general) offering more pace, the opportunity for seamers to rush the batters with shorter deliveries is greater in the Caribbean than on the archetypal English surface.
As such, the combination of threats faced by batsmen in the Caribbean is a curious mix – for English tourists – of the familiar and unfamiliar. The swing and seam is comfortably alongside what the average English batsman will be used to, though – as many would attest – that doesn’t translate into success. But when you add in the variety of dangerous short balls, you are left with an almost unique blend of “Kookaburra” and “Dukes” style challenges for the batsmen.
Given the manner in which England surrendered in the recent Ashes tour, the mere mention of the word “Kookaburra” might well be enough to send chills down the spine of the batting unit. But they will be keen to stress that this is a new era, featuring newcomers who bring with them the freshness that comes with not being burdened by previous failures, be they Down Under or on Caribbean shores. If England’s record in the West Indies has taught them anything it should be that, no matter how badly the hosts might be struggling at any given time, it would be foolish to underestimate them.
Against opponents who routinely save their best for England, in conditions that promise to be tricky, all the data points towards a tough series ahead for Joe Root’s side.