Jason Holder was a left-field captaincy choice before the 2015 World Cup. Four years later, he is leading them into another one. The criticism hasn’t stopped, but Holder has emerged as a thoughtful leader while also turning into one of the world’s best Test allrounders.
What was it like when you first took over the captaincy?
I first got the captaincy in South Africa at the end of 2014. Basically, at that stage it was a situation where we were just transitioning before the World Cup – the next assignment would have been the World Cup. For me it was about setting my ground, laying my foundation to go as a captain and getting to know the players. No doubt it was a tough task. We lost 4-1 to South Africa and then we moved onto the World Cup, where we felt we did a reasonable job to get to the quarter-finals. We would have obviously liked to go on a little further and deeper into the tournament, but personally, I still got some really good performances, and I felt my best way to lead is by example.
Did you have any leadership experience before that?
Yeah. I captained at youth level – Barbados U-17, Barbados U-19, senior team. I captained West Indies U-19 as well, for parts of the tournament [World Cup]. And you know, I’ve captained West Indies A as well. I’ve had plenty of experience as a young captain. I’ve always been interested in the leadership role, throughout my career. So it wasn’t anything new to me. I was just trying to get to know how to lead people at this level.
Leading West Indies must have been the first time you felt the pressure of being a leader, considering there was some noise in the Caribbean about your appointment.
I get criticised every day. In terms of pressure, there was no added pressure. Personally, I feel I get the best out of myself in a leadership position. Regardless of whatever you do, people have something to say. I tend not to let that get to me. More often than not, you sit and do press conferences, media appearances, people take bits and pieces of what they want to make a story. You’re often misquoted by the press and people just look for things to say or create an image of you that you’re not. So for me it was about understanding that and accepting it for what it is, and just being true to myself. Whenever I speak, I try to speak as honestly as I possibly can. I try not to, for lack of a better word, fool people about what to expect or what we’ve been doing.
Were there any specific incidents that made you this way?
For the U-19 World Cup, I was interviewed at home in Barbados prior to my departure, and when I saw the actual news, it was just them making up a story from part of the interview. That taught me a lot. I was very disappointed at that stage and I contacted the person who had done the interview and I let them know exactly how I felt about it. Again, I just tried to be straight, let you know how I feel about certain things. It’s then I realised how people are, and that people can have ulterior motives.
You said you wanted to lead by example to gain respect. What were the initial days like, because you were growing as a player back then.
Funny you say that. I was given the captaincy in South Africa and I didn’t do too badly with the ball. I remember the game. We actually won in Port Elizabeth. I got four wickets for 40-50 odd runs, which then was one of my better performances.
Then I went to the World Cup, I batted three times and got two half-centuries and a 40. And I got crucial wickets as well.
So, starting in one-day cricket, I thought it was going nicely there. And then I remember coming back home to the Caribbean and getting back into the Test team. I scored my first hundred to save a game, against England. So my performances were always there.
I would admit, though, when I was probably a year or two into the role, it became a lot more demanding because some off-the-field stuff came into the scenario. It was tiring for me to balance my role being a player and part of management as well. Obviously, players see you as the bridge. For me it was about trying to get things in a way where the players were happy and also for them to be able to perform on the field to keep the board happy. And I found that challenging.
I started to take on a lot more peripheral stuff than I probably should have. And I just got to a point where I had to back off. I backed off from certain battles because I felt certain things wouldn’t change – things I don’t want to get into in detail. I was interested in a role to lead West Indies at a relatively young age, but as I said before, to gain the respect of your players, they’ve got to see through you. You’ve got to be transparent in all your actions. I felt as though I had to portray that and find a way in which I could show the players that I am for them. Yeah, at that stage it was difficult and I had to back off a bit to focus on me and get in those performances first before I could tackle those scenarios.
It’s like anything else – you have good days and bad days. You will be faced with certain things that will be tough. Obviously you’re dealing with people in an organisation where everybody is entitled to their opinion, and you will always have a clash of opinions. I’m in a role now where I’m trying to find more of a compromise as opposed to more of a battle.
Did you have mentors through this phase?
Not really. But I’ve got a strong support system in terms of my close friends. Luckily for me, lots of them, if not all, play cricket at some level. I call them my friends because they’re true to me and I think they’re very intelligent as well. So I lean on them in those scenarios. Some of these scenarios we can fight as one because lots of my close friends play domestically in the Caribbean.
You obviously have people you came up with, [like] Mr [Ezra] Moseley, who I owe everything to in terms of my development. I first came into contact with Mr Moseley at secondary school, and he practically taught me everything I know with the ball. And he gave me a strong mentality in terms of how to go about my cricket.
And then in the middle to later stages of my career so far I’ve been under Roddy Estwick. He’s a father to me, more so than a coach, because he knows me inside out and we get along very well. Just to name a few people who have helped me through lots of different battles and had it not been for them, maybe I would not be here as captain or player.
I suppose one of the challenges of becoming a leader is having it change your character. Did you ever feel at any point that you were drifting away from who you are?
Never once. Most of my friends know that I call myself a lion. And it’s because I feel I can conquer anything. Even if I fail trying to conquer, I know that I’ve given my effort to conquer. Failure is a part of life and that’s something I’ve learned to understand. And I love challenges, man. I may not succeed at that present time, but I know there is that one time where I will clinch that particular hurdle. I won’t let go. It’ll probably eat me up inside knowing I haven’t conquered it.
I have a phrase which I got from my friend Sulieman Benn – “man a lion”. So whenever I put something on Instagram, that’s my quote: man a lion. Just living by that mentality and that mental strength.
Funny you should say that about being a lion. Coach Stuart Law says that as a captain you still have to learn how to not be too nice.
My persona is one of comfort. We’ve had the pleasure of working with a sports psychologist, Stephen Sebastian. A lot of times people say fight with fire with fire, but he brought a scenario, because of my personality, to fight fire with water.
I try to be more of a brother or father to certain players. I believe in understanding them personally before trying to understand them technically or physically. So when I say I’m a lion, it is in terms of my mentality and my never-say-die attitude. I believe that if I go into the jungle, I can go in to definitely survive and be the conquering lion. But in terms of my personality per se, so as to get the best out of my team-mates, it’s more of a mentoring and father-figure role.
For a long time, other teams and the media have treated West Indies like minnows. In this reality, what is your usual team talk like?
For me, what’s the point in getting caught up with what the media wants us to get caught up in? I’d rather fight the battles on the field. I always tell the guys there’s a process to winning. There’s a process to success. You can’t just say you’re leaving the Caribbean to go to India without knowing the direction to take.
There are certain things you need to do in order to win. Consistency when you’re batting, you can break down to a number of things. Likewise with bowling and fielding. And if you dial in and everyone focuses on their actual personal role within the team and you look to execute that, more often than not you’re going to win. And that’s just the mental approach we need to take. Why get caught up with media and such?
But on the flip side, there are players who tend to get pumped up by people saying things about them. They like to see people rule them out, then to go and prove them wrong. You personally have got to know how to get the best out of yourself. And if you’re not a person to react positively to criticism, then you’ve got to put that aside. Find ways to get the best out of yourself. My personality is not one to take on much of the peripherals. I’m more of a person who knows what I need to do to be successful. I’ve got a game to play for my team-mates and the people in the Caribbean: but always my team-mates first.
Law also said that when people get used to playing a certain level, it’s hard for them to believe that they can go the next step. Is that something you’ve ever felt?
I wouldn’t agree there. If you’re playing the highest level of cricket, there’s one job and [that is] to get here. Then you’ve got another job to secure your place. You take, for example, a guy like Marlon Samuels, who just completed his 200th ODI. There must be a reason why he is doing it. He’s had to have had success before to play his 200th game, going into maybe a second or third World Cup. And those things are called performances. So there’s only one way to get consistent performances and that is to do hard work.
If you wanna be the best, then you’ve gotta compete with the best. You’ve gotta find out what the best in the world are doing. If you wanna be an average player and just be in the West Indies team, then you compete among your peers. Which is not world-class mentality.
In that sense do you think it’s useful that so many of your players are in demand throughout the world, despite the downsides?
The thing is, when one door closes another opens. I get bombarded everywhere about who is playing and who isn’t. But, again, I don’t care. Whoever is playing I know wants to play, wants to do well. We’ve just got to bring it together collectively. I don’t get too involved in who’s there and who’s not there. I believe I’ve got the best 13- or 15-member squads that are stepping into a series for West Indies.
How much of the selection process are you part of?
I am part of it. Obviously there’s a panel and it consists of all the selectors, plus the coach of the team. Again, you’ve got different opinions from different people. It all boils down to a compromise sometimes, or maybe a case of vote. You obviously try not to get down to a stage where you’re voting for people. But it can go down to that. And at the end of the day, sometimes you get your way, sometimes you don’t. And that’s life. You make do with what you get.
Let’s move on to your own performances. What has changed over the last year or so? Have you done something or was it just a matter of time before we saw you become one of the best allrounders in the world?
No specific changes. If anything, I’ve grown stronger mentally. I do a lot of mind training, to adapt to any circumstances.
How do you do that?
When I’m preparing for an opposition, I’ve got to ask myself what is going to be the toughest situation in a battle. If you go to war, you’re not going by yourself. You go with your team-mates. So it’s about how I use my team-mates to get the best out of myself. That’s kind of my mentality, so in terms of conditions as a bowler, you know that there are some kinds of pitches that just don’t offer any assistance for the faster bowlers. So it boils down to building pressure for me. That’s one of my strengths. Bowling pressure, keeping my economy low, and tightening things from one end. If I don’t get the wickets, somebody else will. I wouldn’t say there’s anything drastically different that I’ve done. No new skills, [just] doing the same thing over and over. I just knew it would click.
I must admit at the beginning of my career as a bowler, it was pretty tough; the wickets were pretty scarce. My bowling average at one stage was maybe close to 100. Now I’m down to 28 or something like that. At the end of the day, it just goes down to being consistent and backing your preparation.
Your batting has also improved a lot. One of the criticisms about you was that as an allrounder you didn’t produce big results in either of your disciplines. Have you worked on being more multi-dimensional?
Again, there’s nothing different. What I would say is that I’ve tried to be a lot more rigorous with my thought process. I felt a lot of times I could have carried on with a start I’ve gotten.
It’s been difficult. What a lot of people don’t understand is that I haven’t been in a role to be playing as a genuine allrounder, where I bat at No. 6 and bowl 20 overs in an innings. I’ve always been more of a bowling allrounder who has bowled the bulk as a second seamer and then come in at eight or nine to try to accumulate runs batting with the tail.
And if you look at my numbers in Test cricket, I’ve not done too bad for a guy who comes in at No. 8. I don’t bat in a specialist batsman’s position but people expect me to produce those numbers based on the fact that I’ve showed ability with the bat. Yeah, I know I can bat. No doubt. Ideally what I want to be doing is working my way up the order to give myself a chance of scoring more hundreds. So far, in my career I’ve played 30-odd Tests and only got two centuries. And quite a few half-centuries. So it’s about scoring a few more half-centuries to get up the order, batting more in a batsman’s position and getting a few more hundreds.
If you look at the other allrounders in the world, you’ve got Ben Stokes. Shakib [al Hasan] I think is No. 1 in the Test allrounders. [Ravindra] Jadeja I think is No. 2, and I’m No. 3. It’s just a matter of me now being more consistent, in terms of more not-outs coming at the end. But I don’t really look for not-outs because, again, it’s about what the team is looking for. Sometimes I come in with us under pressure and for me it’s about getting us out of that hole and also scoring.
My game is built around scoring. I can’t bat out time. So I look to score first, I look to build a partnership with my partner. But a lot of times I become stranded and the bulk of the scoring is relying on me.
How do you assess yourself as a captain? Is it based on what the team atmosphere is like? Do you look at the rankings? And if it is results-oriented, then what are you looking to achieve in the next two years?
To start with the last part, realistically speaking, in the next two or three years we’ve got to be aiming to be around No. 5 to 6, or 4, in the world. It’s not going to happen dramatically that we go to No. 1. But if we look at the series ahead, we’ve got some pretty big teams there. We’ve got India at home and England at home. So if we set our sights to protecting home turf – which is the way world cricket is going now, everyone protects home turf – I think it’s a situation where if we dial in on these series, we’ve got to be doing things well at home to pick up points and go up. Because obviously when you travel it becomes a lot more difficult. And realistically speaking I can see this West Indies Test team at least go up to No. 4 in the next two years.
And in one-day cricket, the rise would probably be slower as we’re heading into a World Cup. The World Cup is a tournament where people make their mark and people exit as well. So it’ll be interesting to see where we stand and who we’re going forward with. Realistically, [we want] the West Indies one-day team to go from being No. 9 to being at least No. 6 within a year and a half or so.
Varun Shetty is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo