(ESPNCricinfo) When Alzarri Joseph dismissed David Warner with his first ball on IPL debut to start his record-breaking 6 for 12 against Sunrisers Hyderabad, many would have assumed that to be his most memorable wicket so far. Perhaps, they weren’t aware of his first Test wicket.
At St Lucia in 2016, in his third over on Test debut, he got one to rear up on the batsman at 141kph. It was fended awkwardly to the slips. The batsman was Virat Kohli.
So Warner or Kohli? As a 22-year-old, growing up watching a lot of T20 cricket, maybe Warner? Maybe not. “I am not trying to look at T20 cricket at the moment,” Joseph had said in 2016 while playing the Under-19 World Cup in Bangladesh. “I am looking at Test cricket. I like it.”
That’s one of the things that sets Joseph apart. Unlike many others in their early twenties who first play in the T20 leagues and then move on to the international stage, Joseph played his first-ever T20 match barely a month before his Test debut. In fact, IPL 2019 is only his third T20 tournament, after featuring twice in the Caribbean Premier League (2016 and 2018).
But who is this Alzarri Joseph, who keeps taking these big wickets on the big stage?
At six feet and four inches, Joseph has the height for a fast bowler. He comes from All Saints in Antigua, and grew up idolising local heroes Andy Roberts and Curtly Ambrose.
Joseph was first seen on TV at that Under-19 World Cup three years ago, when he was beating England batsmen with his pace and swing. His fastest ball in the tournament was clocked at 147kph. He was extracting good bounce from back of a length in Asian conditions, and he was almost always picking early wickets, just like he did against Sunrisers.
He ended the victorious World Cup campaign with 13 wickets from six matches, at an astonishing average of 13.76 and economy rate of 3.31. Joseph was already being touted as the next Kagiso Rabada then for his ability to mix the short balls and yorkers well.
He set things up for West Indies in the tournament final by removing India’s top order single-handedly and set up a small chase. One of those wickets was of India Under-19 captain Ishan Kishan, who was trapped lbw with Joseph’s early movement. Kishan and Joseph now share the Mumbai Indians dressing room.
“Now, he has an even better rhythm,” Kishan said of Joseph on Tuesday. “He is looking even better, he has improved his line and length and reads the batsmen much better. His ball skids and because of his height, he gets a lot of bounce which makes it difficult for the batsmen.”
After that final in February 2016, Ian Bishop, one of the commentators of the tournament, had said Joseph was “ready” for international cricket. Just five months later, Joseph made his Test debut.
Up until the Under-19 World Cup, Joseph hadn’t met his hero Ambrose, but when he flew back home from Bangladesh with the trophy, Ambrose was part of the welcoming party at the airport. What was Ambrose’s advice to Joseph?
“I am Antiguan, you’re Antiguan and I am proud. Anytime you need any advice or any help and as long as I am on the island, you can call on me anytime.
“I’ve watched most of the games and you have the fast bowler’s streak; you don’t smile much … and I like that about you. You are very aggressive but I just want to say that it’s now the work will start.
“Now that you are in the eyes of the world everyone will be watching you so I want to say to you just keep working hard, maintain your fitness, continue to develop your skills.”
In a few months, Joseph would go on to work with his role model – Ambrose was bowling consultant of West Indies when he made his Test debut. The prized cap was handed by another West Indies legend Joel Garner at St Kitts, the country that was also home of his CPL franchise.
As a kid, Joseph grew up bowling to his father, who played a bit of cricket for the Empire Cricket Club in All Saints, in their backyard. From there, he was coached by former West Indies quick Winston Benjamin in Antigua.
Joseph grew up idolising Dale Steyn, hence honing his skill of swinging the ball away from right-hand batsmen. Putting his pace and swing to good use with his control, Joseph has gone on to become a vital cog in the West Indies ODI pace attack too.
Just before his international debut, Joseph bowled to the touring Australians in the nets in St Kitts and then stand-in coach Justin Langer was impressed. “He bowled fast, beautiful yorkers – and what an athlete,” Langer said in June 2016.
Just before the Test series in England in 2017, Andy Roberts was asked about West Indies’ pace attack and he said: “He’s (Joseph) young, I think he’s probably the fittest of the lot in terms of not breaking down and he also swings the ball a bit which is not common.
“Jason Holder, Kemar Roach and Shannon Gabriel are more seamers. They seem to hit the deck a lot harder and try to get legcutters and offcutters whereas Alzarri Joseph, especially early in the innings, will try to swing the ball.”
At the end of 2017, Joseph suffered a stress fracture in the back that kept him away from international cricket for nearly 10 months. After slowly being drafted back into the ODI side, Joseph missed the Test tour of India late last year because of recovery, but was soon playing Tests again, against England earlier this year, although not in ideal conditions.
Joseph was playing his first Test in front of his home crowd when he lost his mother because of brain tumour before the start of the third day’s play. Joseph stayed strong mentally, his team-mates showed solidarity, and he continued to play. He bowled a seven-over spell that morning and got the big wicket of England’s captain Joe Root for the second time in the game.
Joseph showed then that even during the darkest of days off the field, he was not going to lose his on-field habit. Of taking the biggest wickets of the opposition, a habit he continues.