For three and a half days the West Indies have played well above themselves, indeed have played out of their skins. But a side unused to winning, inexperienced, and ultimately lacking in quality anyway, finally wilted in the face of an England middle and lower order that is undoubtedly one that would cause a few tremors against much better sides than this.
There were chances missed, there’s no doubt about that. The dropped catches ultimately added up to over 240 runs in England’s favour (though it should be mentioned that England have dropped a few themselves, which would balance that ledger to a degree), and the bowling discipline that was so evident in England’s first innings fell away alarmingly after tea, as Moeen Ali and Chris Woakes punished them for their indiscipline.
What might have beens are the stock in trade for weaker sides in every sport – the lower league football team that lets a lead slip in the closing minutes, the tennis underdog finally beaten in the fifth set – so to that end the turnaround in the match is one that could have been (and was) expected. At the end of proceedings their performance over the first few days should be seen as the exceptional one, worthy of praise, and the return to the mean after tea on the fourth day more in keeping with where they are as a unit. They have tried so desperately hard in this match, and the likelihood is that they will end up empty handed.
That there were errors made is beyond question. Gabriel and Roach were overbowled in the morning session as their team strove for wickets, and by the time the new ball was due they weren’t sufficiently rested to take it before lunch, and weren’t that effective with it afterwards either. But they are errors from over-enthusiasm in trying to force the win, and perhaps it is the hindsight that lends that judgement of it, rather than how it was at a time when England were only 82 runs in front and four wickets down. At that point the tourists were firm favourites, even as England were just beginning to get into a position where they had a chance in the match.
Dawid Malan did himself no harm in terms of selection for the tour to Australia with a gritty 61 over the first part of the day. It lasted over four hours, he rarely looked fluent, and included a bit of fortune when being dropped at first slip; but above all else he wore down the seam attack and created the circumstances for Moeen to come in and flay a weary bowling unit around the ground. Sometimes the less eye-catching innings are the important ones, and given the knife edge the game was on, he deserves considerable credit for his determination. There is a great deal of focus on technique when appraising batsmen but the game is littered with those with excellent techniques who don’t succeed, and others with deeply flawed ones who do. His 186 ball stay did more to suggest he has the aptitude than a bright and breezy innings of the same score could have done. Whether he goes on to make it is of course unknown, but he played well today.
England’s total of 490-8 was their highest ever without anyone scoring a century, and had it not reached those levels, it’s not hard to imagine that a fair degree of stick would be coming in the direction of Stokes and Bairstow for the manner of their departures. Stokes was caught on the boundary trying to hit a six, Bairstow bowled attempting a reverse sweep. With Malan out too three wickets had gone down for 24 runs and England were seven down with a lead of only 158. The game was unquestionably in the balance, yes, but some are no nearer to accepting players taking risks than they ever were.
Even though the numbers suggested it was tight, the mini-collapse couldn’t dampen the feeling that England were starting to get on top. The advantage of their exceptional lower middle order is not just that they can bat, but they score so quickly. Moeen Ali is one of the best players in the world to watch when he’s in full flow, and here the array of exquisite cover drives and clips off his legs were fully to the fore. He had one piece of real luck, when caught behind on 32 only to be reprieved by a no ball. Devendra Bishoo has had a truly miserable match, his captain plainly doesn’t rate him at all, and bowled him only when he had to – ultimately he got a decent spell only when the fast bowlers were on their knees. And while Shannon Gabriel in particular got away with endless no balls not called, Bishoo was called on field at the most crucial of times, and it was sufficiently tight to suggest it may have been harsh.
The question of on field umpires not calling no balls isn’t a new one, and the Sky commentary team were quick to complain that in a tight match the extra runs an extra workload could have proved crucial, but if it’s unfair to the batting team, it’s also unfair to the bowler, who all too often doesn’t know he’s been repeatedly overstepping until he takes a wicket and it’s sent to the third umpire to be checked. There are suggestions the fourth umpire could do it every ball (a more dull, soul destroying job in cricket is hard to imagine. Scoring maybe), and perhaps that is a solution. But umpires have managed to check the front foot for decades without the aid of technology, it seems hard to understand why it is suddenly not possible.
At tea, England were 357-7, a lead of 188. Before play Jonny Bairstow had expressed the hope that they might get a lead of 200, and England’s bowlers would probably have fancied their chances had the innings ended there. But the tea break seemed to be the time the magnificently battling West Indies finally cracked. From the first over on resumption it all went wrong – Kraigg Brathwaite of all people bowled it, nominally to allow Bishoo to change ends, but it was simply dreadful. The first ball was a high full toss belted through the covers by Moeen, and it didn’t get any better from that point on. Shannon Gabriel looked utterly exhausted, and his two overs went for 28 runs. The balance of the match had finally tilted.
If Moeen did what Moeen does (and does so well), he was complemented by Chris Woakes, a batsman who is ridiculously good to be languishing at number nine in the order. Indeed, he has a better first class batting average than Mark Stoneman, which demonstrates the ludicrous strength in all rounders England possess. In many international teams, he’d be a number six. His fine unbeaten half century, initially in a supporting role, latterly taking control shows how even when he’s been a trifle disappointing with the ball on his return from a long injury layoff, he has the skill to make a contribution.
England had been behind the game from the first morning, and so perhaps it was a slight surprise that before the close Joe Root decided to declare. A welcome one, for although England’s lead was by then sizeable, few expected it. There aren’t so many recent captains who would have taken the miniscule risk involved in doing so.
Brathwaite and Powell survived a testing six overs, and if nothing else, it showed the kind of fighting quality that their team has exemplified for much of this match. If they can manage it for just one more day, then they will come out of the game with immense credit, even if they lose. They aren’t completely out of it, but 322 is a huge target for anyone, let alone a side such as this. It’ll take a special innings from someone to get close, and as Mark Twain once put it, “the race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong; but that’s the way to bet”.