Fabulous. Despite the assorted efforts of governing bodies around the world to undermine it, Test cricket can still show itself to be the greatest exponent of the greatest game. Those who want four day Test matches would rob us of days like these, they would remove the sheer drama, the extraordinary tension of cricket at its very best. These people mustn’t win, they cannot win. They cannot steal from fans, players and the game itself by removing the sheer drama of a fifth day run chase. If this game doesn’t shut them up, then nothing will. Yes, there are matches that don’t go to this point, but those that do tend to be the very best of all. To coin a phrase or two, it’s time they piped down. Moved on.
What a day. Few gave the West Indies much chance, and there’s certainly no claimed wisdom after the event from this quarter either. Survival seemed remote, victory seemed impossible. Those taking advantage of the superbly price final day tickets (well done Yorkshire CCC, take note London grounds) would have gone expecting to see an England win, and maybe James Anderson taking his 500th Test wicket. Instead what they saw were a pair of innings of the highest quality from Kraigg Brathwaite and Shai Hope. Having done it in the first innings, and got their team into a position of dominance that was then thrown away late on the fourth day, they did it again, but this time under serious pressure.
Sure, England made mistakes – Cook has been a very reliable slip catcher after an iffy start to his career, but here dropped Brathwaite on 4, and late on dropped Hope when it was just about possible to claw something from the day. These things do happen sometimes, and even Stokes dropped a fairly straightforward one late on, albeit when it was too late to matter. England’s bowling wasn’t as good as it could have been, and certainly the pitch didn’t deteriorate as they had hoped for a fifth day surface. The spin expected didn’t transpire, the ball didn’t swing as much as anticipated, and without question they lacked penetration all day.
One thing that shouldn’t be criticised (but almost certainly will be) was Root’s decision to declare. Setting a team 322 really ought to be enough, in almost all circumstances, and when the opposition are a weak side who managed to lose 19 wickets in a day last time out, it was an entirely reasonable, if aggressive declaration. What it might do is prevent Root from doing it again, and that would be a shame. Conservative declarations have been the order of business for England captains in recent times, and Kevin Pietersen was pilloried for the defeat in Chennai for his declaration (even though it was 9 wickets down when he did so). If the same happens to Root for this, then he’ll be even more unlikely to repeat it, potentially costing England a win in other circumstances. Of all the reasons England lost this match, an early declaration isn’t one of them. To his credit, after the match he stood by it. He’s right.
For today was all about the West Indies. When something special happens, it is always the case that one side can be criticised for their performance causing defeat, rather than the other being praised for winning. By definition, if a side gets over the line, they have done better than their opponents, and it’s always a trade off between high performance on the one hand and underperformance on the other. Let’s be clear here: England were definitely not awful, they didn’t lose this game, the West Indies won it.
Shai Hope is beautifully named, for a young player who has for some time been very highly rated in the Caribbean hasn’t up until now shown that talent in the Test arena. Headingley 2017 might just be the time when he announced himself. His first innings hundred was exceptional, his second innings one truly memorable. Alongside Brathwaite, he frustrated the England bowlers, slowly chipping away at the formidable total, eating up time and grinding down England.
No-one before has ever scored two centuries in the same match at Headingley, and yet here there were nearly two. Brathwaite fell for 95, but his young colleague not only seemed entirely unfazed by the situation, but by his own personal milestones. His muted celebration on scoring his hundred indicated a player focused on the win, not his personal achievement. He is a talent.
As the target dropped below three figures, and with the departure of Brathwaite, the man England would really not have wanted to get in was Jermaine Blackwood. Playing a shot a ball he made a mockery of the required run rate, removing any pressure that might have built up as a team entirely unused to winning became aware that they just might have a real sniff. Of course, it could have gone wrong. He could have got out cheaply and then the pressure might have told. But the point with all of these things is that he didn’t and it didn’t. He took a risk, backed himself and it paid off handsomely. While the others may have got more runs, he was the one who led the charge home, and took the strain from Shai Hope. That he wasn’t there at the end following a magnificently over the top wild swing at the ball is pure Blackwood. May he never change.
The raw words can barely do justice to what occurred today. Irrespective of what happened here, the West Indies are not a good side. England might not be a great team, they’re not even consistently a good team, but they are a much, much better side than their opponents. For three and a half days the West Indies dominated them, and then England’s power and depth turned the tables. The Test match was gone, it had been thrown away. To then recover from that, to and not just win, but win comfortably, is the stuff of dreams.
It changes very little. The West Indies remain a weakened and often dysfunctional side run by a shambolic governing body. The disparity in pay between the haves in England, Australia and India versus the rest is still there. Test cricket is still in trouble, players are still leaving to milk the T20 cow. But sometimes there is a game that can sit outside of that. Acknowledging the problems and the challenges doesn’t mean ignoring the play, and this was a reminder of just why it can be so special.
Well done the West Indies. You were truly, truly magnificent. England batted badly first time around, but they were by no means awful. They were outplayed ultimately by a team that was for whatever reason, humiliation from the first Test perhaps, utterly inspired. It won’t just be West Indies fans celebrating, it will be neutrals too, and many an England fan who loves West Indies cricket, and above all else loves cricket for the sake of it. Of all the home series England have played in the last few years, who would ever have thought it would be the West Indies who achieved this acute emotional response?
Rarely has a defeat for England felt so enjoyable. Not because of them, not because of anything they did, but because of how extraordinary the West Indies were. Hoping that they build on it may be an aspiration too far, but for now they can celebrate. Their long suffering supporters can celebrate.
Above all else, cricket can celebrate. That has to be worth pausing for, surely?