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High Drama as Cricket Returns

It was 2 March when the last game of Test cricket was played anywhere on the planet, so after a gap of more than four months of Covid-19 lockdown, cricket fans from around the world were ready to enjoy the return of the game’s most challenging format, though the entire audience was going to be watching on television as fans were still excluded from coming to Southampton to watch as West Indies took on England.


For the hosts, Joe Root was missing on parental leave, so Ben Stokes stepped up to captain England for the first time, the 81st to hold that role. The track record of England’s other talismanic all-rounders, Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff, did not augur well, but the fact it was only a stop-gap appointment released some pressure.


There were no great surprises in England’s batting line-up, with Rory Burns returning to open with Dom Sibley, Joe Denly, Zak Crawley, Ben Stokes and Ollie Pope following on. It looked an inexperienced line-up. Jos Buttler donned the keeping gloves, but among the bowlers there was real debate: which spinner should England choose? In the end, it was Dom Bess who got the nod over Jack Leach. And among the seamers it was clear that one of Jimmy Anderson, Jofra Archer, Stuart Broad and Mark Wood was going to miss out. In the end, it was Broad who was omitted, ending an unbroken run of 51 consecutive home Tests, dating back to 2012.


For the West Indies, there was a return to the old days, with a pace trio of Shannon Gabriel, Alzarri Joseph and Kemar Roach. Skipper Jason Holder completed the frontline attack, as well as being the world No 1 ranked all-rounder – just ahead of Stokes. None of their batsmen came into the Test with an average of 35 or more, though there was more experience than among their England counterparts.


After such a long delay, it seemed almost inevitable that rain would play a part, and it wasn’t until 2pm that play could begin, with England choosing to bat first. England got off to the worst possible start when Sibley left one from Gabriel that nipped back and hit the top of off before a run had been scored. There were two more stoppages but, despite the interruptions, Burns and Denly batted through till tea without too many alarms against the probing attack, though the wicket appeared a bit two-paced at times during the 17.4 overs that were possible, reaching 35 for one. They weren’t able to get back out afterwards.


Early on the second day, Burns passed 1000 runs in Test cricket, but soon after Gabriel struck to remove Denly, beating his defence for pace. In his 27 Test innings, he’s been dismissed in single figures only four times, but this was his seventh time out for a score of between 10 and 19. Burns didn’t last much longer, as Gabriel trapped him in front after a review to reduce England to 51 for three. Crawley, like Burns, was given out LBW by DRS and England had lost their inexperienced top four for just 71 runs. Pope then nibbled at one from Holder as England’s position deteriorated further – it could have been even worse when Roach dropped Stokes’s mishit pull, so England battled on to lunch at 106 for five.


After the break, the West Indies gave another chance away, dropping Stokes for a second time, but he and Buttler went on to complete a fifty partnership. Just as it seemed that England were getting back into it, at 154 for five, Holder found the edge of Stokes’s bat to dismiss his rival skipper for 43. When Buttler fell three runs later for 35 to a diving catch from Shane Dowrich, England were in deep trouble. Archer followed straight after as another LBW decision was given on review – the umpires weren’t having a great Test. A 30-run last-wicket partnership saw England up to an inadequate total of 204, with Holder taking a career-best six for 42, but it was yet another dismal start to a series with the bat from England. In South Africa they began with 181 (to trail by 103), in New Zealand 353 (to trail by 262), at home to Australia 374 (to lead by 90) and against Ireland 85 (behind by 122).


West Indies continued to have success with their reviews early in their innings when two LBW decisions for Anderson were overturned, the latter being the fifth (out of five) that had gone the way of the West Indies. It was third time lucky for Anderson to remove John Campbell for 28, the batsman unsurprisingly reviewing the decision, albeit unsuccessfully this time. They battled through to the end of the day to finish on 57 for one, and in a strong position.


On the third day, the weather finally improved and England knew they needed to take early wickets, but Kraigg Brathwaite and Shai Hope put on a fifty partnership, and when they finally had a wicket after an hour, Archer had overstepped and his LBW was overturned. West Indies had reached half of England’s total when they lost their second wicket, Hope well caught at slip by Stokes off Bess for 16. Just as West Indies were starting to dominate and England bowled too short, Brathwaite was LBW to Stokes for 65 before lunch and they went into the break at 159 for three.


Half an hour into the afternoon, Shamarh Brooks feathered one behind off Anderson for 39. Bess and Anderson kept it tight at under two an over and eventually Jermaine Blackwood drilled one off Bess to Anderson for 12. Just after 3pm, the West Indies passed England’s total with five wickets still in hand. Dowrich took the attack to England and at tea his side were 235 for five after a largely attritional session, and the hosts’ bowlers were under pressure to deliver.


The partnership between Roston Chase and Dowrich went past 80 to put the tourists into a commanding position, before finally England had a review go in their favour after an LBW shout from Anderson was shown by DRS to be hitting the stumps and Chase was out for 47, but the lead was already an ominous 63. Holder didn’t last long, pulling one down to long leg off Stokes, and finally England could attack the tail. It was the first time in an England Test that the two captains had dismissed each other since Michael Atherton and Wasim Akram had done so back in 1996.


Joseph was next out, for a swift 18, when Stokes got through his defences – it was the England skipper’s 150th Test wicket, making him the second fastest to 4000 runs and 150 wickets in a Test career in 64 Tests, behind Garry Sobers in 63 but ahead of Ian Botham and Jacques Kallis (both on 69). Stokes then strangled Dowrich down the leg side for 61, before Wood finished things off with a superb yorker and West Indies were all out for 318, a lead of 114 (England’s average deficit in the last five series after the first innings of the rubber is 102). There was a tricky 10-over spell to see off before the close, but Burns and Sibley managed it, getting to 15 and trailing by 99 with two days remaining.


On Saturday morning, Burns and Sibley continued to eat into West Indies’ lead, reducing it to less than 50 before Burns was out for 42, a soft dismissal to Chase, but it was the only blemish of the session. England had almost cleared the deficit when Sibley played on when on 50, but Gabriel had bowled a no-ball, only for Sibley to be strangled down the leg yet again straight after. It brought Crawley in to join Denly, and you felt the pair were in a shoot-out for who would retain their place for the second Test, when Joe Root returns.


Denly did his cause no good whatsoever when he chipped the softest of catches to short mid-wicket off Chase, out for 29 – his sixth Test dismissal in the twenties; 18 of his 28 innings have ended for scores between 10 and 38. By tea, England had reached 168 for three, a lead of 54 and the game was delicately poised. In the evening session, Crawley continued to bat positively, going to his fifty with a reverse sweep and with Stokes he put on a fifty partnership.


At 5pm, West Indies took the new ball with England on 211 for three, leading by 97 runs, and thoughts were veering towards a declaration just before lunch on the final day with a target of 240-plus. When he reached 67, Crawley passed his previous highest Test score, and the sense grew that he would be England’s No 3 at Old Trafford. The first 45 minutes with the new ball were dominated by England, but Holder struck again to remove his opposite number for 46, and England were effectively 135 for four. Next over Crawley’s leading edge went straight back to bowler Joseph and he was out for 76. When a leaden-footed Buttler lost his stumps, bowled through the gate by Joseph, West Indies could feel they had regained the advantage.


A weary Gabriel came back on at the end of the day and managed to knock over two more, a beauty sending Bess’s off stump out of the ground before an inside edge onto the stumps accounted for Pope (no leading West Indies bowler has ever taken a higher percentage of his wickets bowled). In a little over an hour, England had gone from 249 for three to 279 for eight and the day ended shortly after with England 170 ahead. So it was that England’s two familiar failings had cropped up again in this match: a low first-innings score requiring a tough fightback, followed by another collapse. It was left to the pace trio of Archer, Wood and Anderson to see if they could set a target of 200-plus and give themselves something to bowl at.


The final day was clear and sunny, with a real sense of anticipation this could be a special day. Archer, who has underperformed with the bat thus far in his Test career, did well, but Wood backed away and edged behind to the keeper and finally Archer was out for 23 when he gloved a pull shot to the keeper off Gabriel, who finished with figures of five for 75. England were all out for 313, leaving a target of 200.


In the previous innings, Archer had bowled below his best and at a lower pace, but this time he was on top of his game, hitting Campbell a painful blow on his toe with a searing yorker in his first over. Campbell battled on for ten minutes but soon retired hurt. Brathwaite followed his partner back to the pavilion when he chopped on off Archer, and then Brooks was LBW to the same bowler. West Indies were 7 for two with a third injured, and Archer was on fire; suddenly England were slight favourites. Not long after, Wood came on and sent Hope’s off stump flying. At lunch, West Indies were 35 for three and England felt they were right on top.


But the afternoon session saw Chase and Blackwood steadily eat into the target, taking advantage of some missed chances. Then Archer found another special delivery – an unplayable bouncer that Chase spooned up to Buttler – and it was 100 for four and the game was back in the balance. Archer appeared to have got Dowrich with another wicked bouncer, but it was overturned on review. It was a key moment for England and by tea West Indies had gone on to 143 for four, with victory seemingly heading their way.


Stokes brought himself back on to bowl and immediately had Dowrich caught in the slips, only to discover it was a no ball. Fortunately, the next delivery he found the edge again and it was 168 for five, with a glimmer of hope for the hosts. Blackwood had reached 95, his joint second highest Test score, when with 11 to win he chipped Stokes to mid off, so close to completing the job. It was the last moment of drama as Campbell came back out to join his skipper to finish the job just before 6pm and complete a victory by four wickets.


For the West Indies, it was a fine result and only their third victory in England in 22 Tests since 2000 to go with 16 defeats. For England, though, there were many questions: surely Denly has had his last chance, with Root due to return? Should Buttler hold on to his place in the side as his batting continues to disappoint in this format? Stokes had chosen to bat first so his spinner would have last use of a wearing pitch, yet Bess was not seen after tea on the final day and had looked largely ineffectual. And would England stick with the same pace attack for the second Test, knowing that Broad was waiting in the wings with a point to prove? Only Archer seemed absolutely sure of his place at Old Trafford for a second Test that would be keenly awaited by cricket fans from around the world.