Antigua’s little hero Alzarri: Few words, plenty pace and a growing bag of Irish scalps 

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Hayden Walsh Jr came to the wicket with the West Indies, in pursuit of 238 for a long-awaited series win, in trouble at 148 for 7.

When Sheldon Cottrell smashed Mark Adair for six over extra-cover to give Kieron Pollard’s soldiers a narrow one-wicket win with one ball left in the final over, Walsh was still at the crease, unbeaten on 46. Including four fours.

Photo: West Indies cricketers Hayden Walsh Jr (left) and Sheldon Cottrell celebrate their ODI win over Ireland on 9 January 2020.
(Courtesy CWI)

That was in yesterday’s second ODI versus Ireland. In the first one on Tuesday, Evin Lewis had likewise ended the match by smashing the last ball high to wide long-off for four. It came to earth a metre short of the boundary, denying him the six that would have given him a thoroughly deserved century. Including 13 fours and two sixes.

Lewis did not quite qualify for the Player-of-the-Match award either. Nor did Walsh. That honour deservedly went to Antigua pacer Alzarri Joseph, who returned identical figures of 4 for 32 off his ten overs in both games. And pouched two catches.

Moreover, without his two textbook straight drives for four back over Adair’s head off the first two balls of the 47th over, the six-runs-off-14-balls task facing Cottrell and Walsh would have been a rather stiffer challenge.

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Joseph knew it. When he contrived to pull Adair’s next ball, a slower one that must have pitched just over halfway down the pitch, straight into Paul Stirling’s hands at short midwicket, he was manifestly crestfallen.

“I could have hit that,” he must have been thinking, “out of the ground.”

Photo: West Indies’ Evin Lewis plays a shot off the bowling of England’s Moeen Ali during an ODI at the Oval in London on 27 September 2017.
(Copyright AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

We’ll most likely never know. The question never came up in the post-match interview. And had it been posed, it is not unlikely that we would have got a hugely unsatisfactory answer; like presenter Daren Ganga, Joseph is not garrulous. Or gifted wit the gab.

Selected on the Shimron Hetmyer-led WI squad for the Under-19 World Cup in India in 2016, Joseph snapped up 4 for 30 against Zimbabwe to earn himself the Man-of-the-Match award. His final tally of 13 wickets, bettered by only two bowlers in the tournament, was the most for the victorious West Indies team.

No one, by the way, bettered the 143kph ball the November-born quick delivered in the course of one of the games—at the age, remember, of not yet quite 19!

That impressive World Cup performance catapulted the young pacer into the spotlight. When some were urging that Joseph was still too young to be included on the regional senior team, his renowned countryman Curtly Ambrose, whose 405 Test wickets at a miserly average of 20.99 suggest that he knows something about the subject of fast bowling, threw his considerable weight behind him.

Selectors, Ambrose argued, would be well advised to look at talent rather than age.

Photo: West Indies’ Alzarri Joseph bowls against England during the second Test at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium, Antigua on 31 January 2019.
(Copyright AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)

Eventually, the authorities concurred, drafting the 6’ 4” Antiguan into the WI squad to face India in the middle of 2016. In his Test debut in the third Test of that series in Gros Islet in August, he finished with 3 for 69 off his 24 overs. That performance was bested only once since then, Joseph returning 15-3-53-3 against Pakistan in Roseau the following year.

In the West Indies’ last Test outing at home, he genuinely impressed many commentators with his performance. In the three matches, all of which he played despite his mother’s death occurring in mid-tour, he consistently troubled the English batsmen and ended with 10 wickets.

His overall Test tally now stands at 25 wickets in nine matches.

On the ODI front too, he proved a handful for the English, sealing his best performance in the format to date (8.1-0-56-5) against them at the Oval in London in 2017. His start had come against Pakistan in Sharjah the previous season, when he registered an unflattering 2 for 62 off his 10 overs.

Prior to the start of the current series, he could boast only a modest 30 scalps in his 22 ODIs. That is a statistic which might surprise Ireland’s openers Stirling and Gareth Delany, Kevin O’Brien, skipper Andrew Balbirnie and wicketkeeper Lorcan Tucker, who now all have first-hand evidence of Joseph’s hostility with the white ball in his hand.

Photo: West Indies’ fans cheer during the third of four T20I matches against Pakistan at the Queen’s Park Oval in Port of Spain on 1 April 2017.
(Copyright AFP 2017/Jewel Samad)

All have so far perished either trying to get out of the way of or failing to get successfully in the way of a Joseph thunderbolt, some of them more than once.

Half-dozen Sunrisers Hyderabad batsmen can also attest to how hard Joseph can be to handle. Playing for the high-profile Mumbai Indians in his 2019 debut in the IPL, without even utilising his full allocation of four overs, he claimed six scalps, conceding a mere 12 runs in the process. But he never quite rose to those dizzying heights again. As a result, neither MI nor any other franchise has selected him for the upcoming season.

However, should he bag another four-wicket haul—or larger—in this weekend’s final ODI or in the subsequent T20Is, it would surprise no one if some IPL side, faced with a last-minute withdrawal, snaps up the quiet assassin who clearly prefers to let bat and ball do his talking.

After yesterday’s match, Walsh told CWI media that it had been “a bit of an emotional day for me (…) It marks the 10th anniversary of my father’s death. He taught me everything I know in cricket (…) and this was part of our dream for me to represent the West Indies and win matches for the people of the West Indies.”

A word count of Joseph’s post-match interview with Ganga would almost certainly reveal that the interviewer had outscored the phlegmatic interviewee. There was no mention of his mother, who had passed on a day when he was involved in a Test match against England but whose passing had not prevented him from completing the game. Nor was there any mention of whence his inspiration had come.

Photo: Not all heroes wear capes.

Clearly not quite comfortable in the spotlight, Joseph responded with brief, inexpansive sentences, sometimes mere phrases, content to answer Ganga’s questions accurately but succinctly, volunteering no information that had not been specifically solicited.

“Relieved about the win but it’s a team game,” espncricinfo’s live commentary summarised his comments. “We all put in the effort.

“The wicket was a bit more even than in the first game so I assessed early and bowled to the plan. As I said in the first game, we have full support from the captain. We wanted to bat sensibly and get to the score.

“When I went out to bat, there were a lot of balls to get there and I was looking to play every ball on merit.

“The win means a lot to everyone but it’s not finished; we have one game to go.”

As I watched the discomfited Joseph almost squirming under the glare of the lights and the camera, I was reminded of a poem I learned at school all those many years ago. In ‘The Little Hero’, Louis Ratisbonne writes about a boy who dives into the raging flood waters of a river to save a smaller boy from drowning.

The crowd of eye-witnesses on the riverbank “hail the hero and want to know his name.”

“My name? What allyuh want to know my name for?” he asks, translated into Trini. “Fuh allyuh to tell my father I was breaking biche to lime by the river? Fuh he to cut my tail? Thanks, eh!”

Genuine heroes, Ratisbonne theorises in closing, are often unaware of the real value of what they have done and are more than reluctant to accept any praise or plaudits offered for their actions.

That a 19th Century French poet should provide more than useful insight into the nature of panache, patriarchy or poetry, perhaps even patricians, the plantocracy or the Plantagenets should come as no surprise. But yesterday (ON THURSDAY) the supremely self-effacing Alzarri Joseph, as plebeian as they come, provided proof positive that, when he went to bat for humble heroes, without the first clue about cricket, Ratisbonne was indeed right on the ball.

Photo: West Indies’ Hayden Walsh, (second from left) celebrates the dismissal of India’s Shivam Dube during the second T20 match against India in Thiruvanathapuram on 8 December 2019.
(AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi)
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About Earl Best

Earl Best
Earl Best taught cricket, French, football and Spanish at QRC for many years and has written consistently for the Tapia and the Trinidad and Tobago Review since the 1970's. He is also a former sports editor at the Trinidad Guardian and the Trinidad Express and is now a senior lecturer in Journalism at COSTAATT.

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