Two days is an eternity in Test cricket. From the utter, desperate shambles of Friday a new spirit was born yesterday. The dear old Antigua Recreation Ground was buzzing, alive with expectation and goodwill.
There was, too, a new England. Into the decrepit but endlessly beguiling setting they stepped, bristling with good intentions. For once, they were not simply paving the road to hell.
The tourists dominated the first day of the third Test against the West Indies, the tone set immaculately by their captain, Andrew Strauss. In compiling his 15th Test hundred he ensured that the travails of Kingston, where England were bowled out for 51 in the first match of the series, were cast off, if not laid to rest.
Strauss, magisterial by then, was out minutes before the close for 169, miscuing his umpteenth pull. But the day belonged to him and England. They lost only three wickets in scoring 301. The pitch, so hurriedly prepared, was blameless. Although the West Indies might not agree, given the lassitude of their play, the hastily organised return to the ARG was a triumph. It felt truly as though Test cricket was returning where it belonged. The bitter disappointment of Black Friday was forgotten.
The second Test at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium a couple of miles up the road was abandoned after 10 balls because the outfield was unfit. Even the great man himself, angry that the ground which bears his name should have provided such a shabby spectacle, was smiling again. There ought to be recriminations and retribution after the manner in which the match subsided on sandy ground but this was not the occasion to seek them. This was about redemption.
There were remarkable transformations in the sides. In the case of England this somewhat mystifyingly went as far as personnel. They made two changes from the 10-ball Test. Monty Panesar was dropped after 32 consecutive Tests in favour of Graeme Swann and Ryan Sidebottom made way for Stephen Harmison, in the expectation of pace and bounce from a surface of which nobody could be certain.
England's control and authority made them unrecognisable from the side which was ultimately so lamentable at Sabina Park. But the West Indies were also masters of disguise. Gone were the vibrancy and discipline of Sabina Park and in their place were carelessness and disinterest.
It was fitting that Strauss should embody England's reinvention. If his innings was not faultless it was always assertive. From the moment he clipped a four off his legs in the second over he looked to be at ease with himself.
He was probably happy to have lost the toss. Concerns that the pitch would vary between sporting and perilous quickly dissipated. Having been rolled with the kind of gigantic machine normally used to compact roads, it had probably been beaten into being. Whether, like a flogged errant child, it might rebel later remains to be seen.
In keeping with the atmosphere, England proceeded merrily from the outset. England's 50 came up in the 14th over, the 100 in the 35th with a straight six from Strauss, the 200 in the 61st. At no stage did the West Indies exercise control.
Strauss and Cook shared their fifth century partnership in 46 innings together and it may have been the most fluent. Both benefited from the defective lines that the West Indies bowled at the start but both seized the opportunity eagerly.
At Sabina Park, Cook, who likes, nay craves, balls on or around leg stump, especially at the start of an innings, was permanently denied. Now he was offered a constant diet and fed on them voraciously. Strauss was perhaps still more effective, pulling and driving with pleasing certainty.
Cook was rightly miffed to be out shortly after he had reached his fifty when his back foot forcing shot went to slip. The opener's job might have been done but he has now had 25 innings since his last Test century and has nine times failed to convert a fifty into a hundred.
Shah, batting in a Test for the first time in two years, began as though he had never been away. He thumped his first ball for four through the covers and set about compiling a proper Test innings. Lovely attacking shots were interspersed with correct defence as if he was making a point to those who had overlooked him for so long.
The second wicket was worth 153, with plenty seemingly to come when Shah misjudged a quick single. Strauss sent him back but Jerome Taylor calmly hit the stumps from short range on the off-side before the batsman could regain his ground.
The captain's composure never deserted him. Leadership may suit him: it was his third hundred in 13 innings as England captain. He was not quite flawless. When he was 14 he ducked into a bouncer which he was fortunate not to glove; he might have been run out had the West Indies fielders not dawdled; he survived a strong leg before shout before lunch; and was put down by Gayle at slip on 47. But he grew stronger as the day went on.
It had taken an enormous effort of manpower and graciousness to ensure this match began on time with the appropriate fixtures and fittings in place. Tons of television equipment had to be moved. In the event, overnight rain prevented a prompt start and when it transpired that water had leaked under the covers the doom-mongers feared the worst.
There had been some nonsense spouted about the ground not being ready. Of course it was not ready. The groundsman, Keith Frederick, had only 36 hours to prepare the pitch and tend the outfield where football is played more often than any other sport.
The markings of the pitch were evident at both ends and fielding was sometimes a slightly precarious business as balls bobbled. But it was an occasion when it was vital to wake up with your glass half-full and not half-empty. What piffle is sometimes spouted about the integrity of Test cricket. It was a great day.
Recreation ground: Scoreboard
First day of five; West Indies won toss
England – First Innings
*A J Strauss c and b Edwards 169
350 min, 278 balls, 24 fours, 1 six
A N Cook c Smith b Gayle 52
159 min, 134 balls, 5 fours
O A Shah run out (Taylor) 57
141 min, 100 balls, 8 fours, 1 six
K P Pietersen not out 8
J M Anderson not out 3
Extras (b6 w1 nb5) 12
Total (for 3, 92 overs, close) 301
Fall: 1-123 (Cook) 2-276 (Shah) 3-295 (Strauss).
To bat: P D Collingwood, A Flintoff, †M J Prior, S C J Broad, G J Swann, S J Harmison.
Bowling: Taylor 15-3-37-0 (nb1) (5-0-19-0, 5-1-6-0, 5-2-12-0); Edwards 14-2-38-1 (nb2) (2-0-11-0, 4-0-12-0, 6-2-12-0, 2-0-3-1); Powell 10-2-38-0 (5-2-14-0, 3-0-21-0, 2-0-3-0); Gayle 12-1-35-1 (6-0-16-0, 6-1-19-1); Benn 17-2-62-0 (nb1) (3-1-4-0, 8-0-27-0, 4-0-25-0, 2-1-6-0); Hinds 15-2-59-0, Nash 7-2-21-0 (one spell each).
Progress: First day: Start delayed until 10.50am due to wet run-ups. 50: 60 min, 14 overs. Lunch: 58-0 (Strauss 34, Cook 24) 18 overs. 100: 131 min, 34.4 overs. 150: 186 min, 50.5 overs. 200: 217 min, 60.1 overs. Tea: 206-1 (Strauss 116, Shah 33) 62 overs. 250: 259 mins, 71.2 overs. New ball taken after 87 overs at 291-2.
Strauss's 50: 111 min, 82 balls, 8 fours. 100: 200 min, 167 balls, 14 fours, 1 six. 150: 285 mins, 242 balls, 20 fours, 1 six. Cook's 50: 153 min, 124 balls, 5 fours.
West Indies: *C H Gayle, D S Smith, R R Sarwan, S Chanderpaul, B P Nash, R O Hinds, †D Ramdin, J E Taylor, S J Benn, D B L Powell, F H Edwards.
Umpires: D J Harper (Aus) and R E Koertzen (SA).
TV replay umpire: N A Malcolm.
Match referee: A G Hurst.
Antigua Recreation Ground: Brief history
*Built 1981. Capacity 9,000.
*Not hosted a Test since 2006, being replaced by Sir Vivian Richards Stadium, scene of Friday's pitch fiasco.
*Its first Test was England's visit in 1981. West Indies have won seven Tests, losing three and drawing 11.
*Brian Lara twice broke the record for most runs in an innings there, while Richards hit a 56-ball century.
*The ground has also hosted football, athletics, carnivals and concerts.
Shot of the day
*Andrew Strauss's straight six off Sulieman Benn to bring up England's 100 indicated that their pledges to reform after their wretched endeavours in Jamaica were not so much hot air. It was an un-Strauss like shot, and the more glittering for that.
Ball of the day
*Chris Gayle's first ball of the 11th over, a gentle off-break. It begged the question of what on earth he and the West Indies were doing introducing spin so early in the piece. The pitch was supposed to be fast and bouncy and the move suggested the home side were not exactly in the right frame of mind.
Moment of the day
*When the players walked out on to the Antigua Recreation Ground to start play at 10.50am following a 45-minute delay for rain, it felt, after the shabby events of Friday, that Test cricket was being reborn. This mood was evident in the response of the spectators who packed the ground.Reuse content