Scene-stealing England leave audience on tenterhooks

The best day's cricket I have seen was definitely at Edgbaston a year ago, when a World Cup semi-final between the two best teams in the one-day game ebbed and flowed like a Test match on speed before ending in a tie. The best day's Test cricket? That's trickier. Was it last Friday, when England bowled out the West Indies for 54, or Saturday, when they suddenly remembered how to bat and inched to an outrageous victory on a muggy evening in London. Bliss it was in that dusk to be alive, but to be at Lord's was very heaven.

The best day's cricket I have seen was definitely at Edgbaston a year ago, when a World Cup semi-final between the two best teams in the one-day game ebbed and flowed like a Test match on speed before ending in a tie. The best day's Test cricket? That's trickier. Was it last Friday, when England bowled out the West Indies for 54, or Saturday, when they suddenly remembered how to bat and inched to an outrageous victory on a muggy evening in London. Bliss it was in that dusk to be alive, but to be at Lord's was very heaven.

What a shame, the pundits have been saying, that the Test series now takes a month-long break. I'm not so sure. The place to put a major scene is either at the end of the show or just before the interval. This match was so full of drama and interest that we will still be talking about it next year, never mind next month. And the idea that England will lose momentum is highly arguable.

It's when Tests come back to back that beaten teams make instant comebacks - as England did, against the West Indies, in Port-of-Spain two years ago. The West Indians now have weeks to brood on how on earth they let England escape, how they can possibly not be winning a series they have dominated for three-quarters of the time. Even Curtly Ambrose, back home on the beach to rest his apparently untiring limbs, will ask himself if he got it wrong for once in his life. (Answer: yes. His length was neither one thing nor the other - not short enough to put fear into the batsmen, nor full enough to take the edge as the ball seamed prodigiously. Let's face it, Curtly, you were Mike Hendrick with a better haircut.)

Another temptation is to paint the game as a glorious one-off, of the kind that has become almost as much of an England speciality as inglorious collapses. C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre. Well, no, it's not, but Friday's final session was as close as England cricket teams get to waging war. The batsmen were not so much attacked as subjected to aerial bombardment. Alec Stewart, the sergeant-major taking over from a wounded officer, radiated belligerence. The bowlers were disciplined, calculating and ruthless, as they had been against Zimbabwe on the same turf a month earlier. There was even a parade.

There is plenty for England to take away from this match and deploy when battle resumes, as long as they use the powers of analysis for which Stewart is, shall we say, not famous. The fact that Nasser Hussain could not play looks more like a blessing in disguise. On the field, Hussain's tactical acumen was missed only for the first two sessions. In the whole second innings, Stewart needed to make just one bowling change.

In a match in which no England batsman made more than 50 in both innings combined, an out-of-form Hussain is unlikely to have made more than the 45 that his understudy, Michael Vaughan, managed. And by being there but not there, sitting on the balcony with Duncan Fletcher, Hussain has the best possible chance of seeing which bits of this historic match to learn from, which to try and repeat and which to ignore.

The vital lesson lies in the part played by Dominic Cork. At the start, Darren Gough and Andy Caddick had one of their off-hours and the West Indies raced to 50. Stewart brought on Matthew Hoggard and Cork, the debutant and the comeback kid, and they restored a measure of order. Hoggard started well - for a debutant. He flagged at the end of his first spell and, in his second, he showed his inexperience by feeding Franklyn Rose's legside hoicks. Meanwhile, Cork started quietly, then, when the wind got behind him, he found his swing, switched on the aggression, and, helped by a good catch from Hoggard, turned the tide. From then on, every little thing he did was magic: four wickets in the first innings, three in the second, two catches, and finally, triumphantly, some calculated risks with the bat, to make sure not only that England won but that they got there on Saturday. And Hoggard? He was not needed. If he had been, he would have been quite entitled to collapse in a heap.

The moral of the story is: don't pick a boy when you can pick a man, and don't bother with rabbits when you can pick a decent lower-order batsman.

Cork had seen England through in a run-chase before, at Christchurch in 1996-97. He is used to running the show for Derbyshire (probably the most political cricket club in the world). He is a big figure. He is a far, far better pick than Hoggard, or Ed Giddins, or Chris Silverwood, or Alan Mullally.

We need more like Cork. Which is no problem, because we have got them. Who was more likely to take wickets on a seaming surface at Lord's: Matthew Hoggard or Angus Fraser? The old workhorse might be surprised to find himself likened to the man once unkindly described as a show-pony, but they share a will to win and an ability to make things happen. The rest of this series is going to be as tight as a disgraced South African captain. Private Fraser, your country needs you. And there can not be any jibes about Dad's Army, because you are not half as old as Curtly or Courtney.

Graham Thorpe must come back too. There are mutterings about his demeanour off the field but, on it, he shows as much skilful combativeness as any England batsman. Mark Ramprakash should join him in the middle order, where he averages 41 in his past four series. And please, General Graveney, either free Stewart to get back in the runs (since his hundred against Zimbabwe, he has made 84 in six Test innings) by calling up Jack Russell, or make proper use of the spare place at No 7 by giving it to a batsman rather than a patently redundant fifth seamer.

Tim de Lisle is editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly and wisden.com.

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