It had been eight months since England last donned their whites to play Test cricket. It looked it. Three wickets down before the shine was off, they might as well have worn the blue costumes they have been sporting recently with such lamentable results.
For once, however, the worst fears, the staple accompaniment to this England team, went unrealised. The men supposed to do the donkey work at the top of the order all went without a hint of protest but Ian Bell and Joe Root came diligently to the rescue on the first day of the first Test against West Indies in Antigua.
Eschewing risk, embracing caution, ignoring error they painstakingly rebuilt an innings which was in imminent peril of being mugged. The pair put on 177 for the fourth wicket to avert another England calamity.
Bell scored his 22nd Test hundred. It was not as pristine as some of its 21 forebears but was the product of a studious graft with the occasional luxurious flourish. He brought it up midway through the final session with one of his favoured, delectable late cuts, this one in the air just to first slip’s left. It was either a fortunate escape or the deftest of touches and Bell’s sublime method allows him the benefit of the doubt.
He fell right at the end for 143, playing a fierce outswinger from Kemar Roach to the wicketkeeper.
West Indies, having won the toss, bowled splendidly at the start, while the tourists, for all their protests to the contrary, were rusty. Bell, the team’s new vice-captain, and Root, its new standard-bearer, decided principally on a course of crease occupation, which England suspected might be the way this series would have to be played. Bell, for instance, took 20 balls to score his first run, Root needed 99 balls to reach his fifty.
It took an age before the board started ticking round at three runs an over. The pair had clearly made a pact that they would wait for the bad balls, working on the assumption that sooner or later they would have their share. It was later rather than sooner but they were eventually correct. The policy of refusing to be bored out by rigid lines, assisted by the occasional play and miss against a ball that was moving just enough to instil doubt, brought them reward. At the end of the first session England were 49 for 3, itself a recovery from 34 for 3, the second session brought 118 more runs without further loss.
Bell was quickly on to the short ball, Root’s late cutting was delicately accurate. Neither seamless nor flawless, with Root badly dropped when he was on 61, both were examples of how a Test innings should evolve.
The ground was in lovely condition, the outfield slow, determinedly grassy and green, in definite contrast to the misplaced golden sand which forced the abandonment of the corresponding match six years ago. There would be no hope this time of moving the game to the Antigua Recreation Ground, as happened then. The old stadium is used exclusively for football now.
There would be no need. That is one lesson at least that the West Indies Cricket Board has learnt (among many that it has not). The ground was not quite full but if the support was mostly for England, there were enough of both denominations to give succour to those who rightly fear for the future of Test cricket.
The feel-good factor invoked by the sense of a fresh beginning, after the long months of failure on the field and turmoil off it, did not last beyond the first over. All too soon, the gamble of bringing back Jonathan Trott was brutally exposed.
It is not only that Trott has had to overcome mental demons created by unrealistic expectations but also that he is not a natural opening batsman. He is there now partly because of his superb past record but partly because there is nobody else.
What happened to him might have happened to any opening batsman but the fact that it was him was bound to excite comment. To his third ball, after being absent for almost 18 months, he was tempted to follow a delivery outside the off stump from Jerome Taylor which moved fractionally away to take the edge and end up with first slip.
It was not the return that Trott would have dreamt of in the period when he was rehabilitating but it was a harsh reminder of the realities of his trade. There is no room for sentiment, no freebies here and, if Trott did not know it before, he knows now how hard it will be to re-establish himself despite the good wishes of the game at large.
If Trott needs runs pretty soon to justify the selectors’ faith, that is perhaps doubly the case for Alastair Cook. He had gone 31 innings without a Test hundred, which became 32 in the eighth over. His bat was but slightly away from his body, the ball seamed back barely as far, but the combination did for him as it took an inside edge and removed the bails.
Gary Ballance, who took so well to Test cricket last summer in Trott’s former position of No 3, was as sluggish as he had been in the recent World Cup. If he wanted his feet to move, they were refusing to obey his command and he paid the penalty. Jason Holder slanted one across him after a plethora of balls into the batsman and Ballance obliged by chasing it and edging to first slip.
England were in trouble, West Indies were elated, their unexpected choice to field having won the toss apparently vindicated. But Root and Bell defied them and the accuracy and length of the bowling began to suffer.
A slow outfield did not offer the merited value for many of the strokes but at least in view of past events here that was an oversight that could be tolerated. Root was dropped at midwicket straight after tea and perished when playing on trying to defend 17 runs short of his century.
Ben Stokes, recalled at last, produced the most unfettered batting of the day but it was Bell’s vast experience which had dragged England into this match.Reuse content