If the West Indies go on to clinch this series, then this will surely be remembered as the day they pulled it off. On a sticky day at the Vivian Richards Stadium – in more senses than one – they negotiated a spitting cobra of a pitch and the most garlanded new-ball pairing of all time to edge their way, run by painstaking run, into a healthy and potentially decisive lead.
So far this series, the West Indies have outplayed England in every department. They placed a far higher price on their wickets than England had on Thursday, as exemplified by Darren Bravo’s laborious rearguard of 33 off 165 balls. Their pace quartet has been sharper and more consistent. Jason Holder’s captaincy has been shrewder than Joe Root’s, the selection and tactics more astute. And on a day where England needed to cling on to every chance in the hope of grappling their way back into the game, they were betrayed by careless hands in the field.
Jos Buttler was particularly culpable, shelling two elementary catches in the slips. Far too many runs were leaked behind square. And while England can count themselves a touch unfortunate to have lost the toss and faced the worst of the conditions, to have been deprived of their keeper Ben Foakes for the whole day with a bruised hand, they created enough opportunities to bowl out the West Indies long before stumps. This was another maddeningly imperfect day from them.
The West Indies got plenty of luck, but they made plenty too. For all the numerous balls that scooted through the slips, just out of the reach of fielders, or past the edge of a gently swishing bat, for the most part they were content to play out maiden overs, keep England in the field, hit the bad balls when they came. As they supped on their energy drinks and packed up for the evening, James Anderson and Stuart Broad will surely have reflected on a day where only a fraction of their industrious toil earned its proper reward.
Broad, in particular, seemed statically charged. There are those who consider him a bowler in decline, and there have been signs in recent months that Root may be coming around to the same way of thinking. This was a stirring return to form, a reminder that in helpful conditions – such as those England are likely to encounter in this summer’s Ashes – Broad still belongs on the highest of planes. Stung by his recent omission, fired by his natural competitive spirit and led by his surgical instinct for a batsman’s areas of discomfort, he charged in from morning to evening with brisk pace and abundant movement.
His opening spell was electric, occasionally eclectic. He began the day with a wide, dropped a little too short from time to time, but when he found his range the batsman was essentially reduced to the role of front-row spectator. His outswinger to the left-hander – the delivery that has caused him so much technical grief in recent years – has returned with a vengeance, and with the odd ball exploding off the pitch, he produced dozens of of deliveries that were simply too good to lay a bat on.
Yet by hook or by cut, or simply by divine grace, the home batsmen stood firm. Just one wicket fell in the opening session, despite a plethora of near misses, and as the West Indies lunched on 126-1, with the ball beginning to age and soften, England seemed to have squandered their best use of the surface.
But the afternoon session was happier for them. Moeen Ali seemed to enjoy the extra bounce in the surface, ending Kraigg Brathwaite’s four-hour vigil by having him caught at short leg. Broad finally notched his first wickets, finding Shai Hope’s edge with a nifty leg-cutter before bowling Roston Chase with a dirty little grubber that barely got a foot off the ground. And having seen Rory Burns drop a sharp chance at extra cover off his bowling, Anderson took a fine tumbling catch at mid-off to dismiss Shimron Hetmyer. With the West Indies still a run behind, England had a golden opportunity to dispense hastily with the tail and scrawl off the deficit before stumps.
Instead, the chances continued to tumble. Bravo, desperately trying to stonewall his way into some form, was dropped at third slip – Buttler again. In his 20th over, still wicketless, Anderson finally broke through, trapping Shane Dowrich on the crease. Dowrich immediately called for a review, and Hawk-Eye determined that the ball was bouncing over the stumps by a quarter of an inch.
Broad eventually ended Dowrich’s innings with a vicious spitter that found the shoulder of his bat, presenting Buttler with a catch even he couldn’t shell. But with Holder, now a Test double-centurion, joining Bravo for the long haul, England could find no further breakthrough. Dusk closed in. The second new ball was safely negotiated. The lead edged past 50 and then past 75.
Another 50 runs in the morning, you feel, and with sprites still dancing beneath the Antigua pitch, it’s hard to see a way back for England. Three days remain in this game, and with the weather set fair Holder’s side have their biggest scalp in a decade within their clutches. They can only hope to do a better job of holding on than England did.
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