Given the forecast, a shade over half a day’s play probably amounted to more than most of those who had paid for their exorbitantly priced tickets could have hoped for. Naturally, the regulations don’t offer any kind of refund once 30 overs have been bowled, but since it seemed distinctly possible barely any play would happen, it’s unlikely that too many on this occasion are that upset – what play there was proved enthralling. This game is moving forward at a considerable lick – a day and a half in to the match in real terms and we’re well into the third innings.
The overhead conditions are of course playing a major part in this, the ball is swinging and seaming all over the place; batting is proving immensely difficult and the bowlers are having fun. Low scoring matches are quite enjoyable to watch; the game can be turned in a session in many Tests, but when runs are hard to come by it becomes even more the case. A bad session tends to be terminal when there may only be seven or eight of them anyway. There have been too many shortened Tests recently in England to be able to fully appreciate the drama for what it is, and that is a pity, because this one is rather good.
This is the latest in the season Lords has ever hosted a Test match, and those with longer memories will well remember the adage of the September one day domestic finals in the 1980s and 90s where winning the toss generally meant winning the match as batting proved nigh on impossible early on. Times and pitches change, so it may be nothing more than coincidence and the cloud cover that has made this such a challenge for the batsmen. Either way, tricky conditions don’t justify any attempts to resurrect the idea of four day Tests, even if some will try and suggest it if, as seems distinctly possible, this one is done and dusted by tomorrow.
It’s not quite evenly poised, a delightfully agricultural innings from Stuart Broad, so far away these days from the cultured near-genuine allrounder that he was some years ago, nevertheless probably did more to turn it England’s way than anything else. Full of hacks, slashes, backing away and hoicks over the slips, it frustrated the West Indies attack and turned parity into a lead of 71. That England were as good as level in the first place was mostly down to Ben Stokes, a player who appears to be developing into a serious cricketer with the bat, and more than useful with the ball. He has an uncomplicated batting technique, but plays straight. The power might be what garners attention, but his driving is almost textbook, foot to the ball, head over it and the weight in the direction of travel. Technique can be overplayed at this level – Graeme Smith was no one’s idea of the MCC manual – but Stokes does appear to have the raw ability to be far better than his admittedly rising average would currently suggest. Time will tell.
The West Indies of the first Test would have folded faced with such a deficit, but if they surprised everyone with their performance in the second, this was more of the same. Finishing the day 93-3 represented an exceptional effort in the circumstances, and a lead at close of play of 22 with seven wickets remaining, fragile a position as it may be, was still a fine performance. Maybe, just maybe, they are finding their feet at this level to an extent few thought possible. If so, then they are in the process of proving many people wrong, and that in itself has to be a good thing.
Kieran Powell hasn’t had a great series by any stretch of the imagination, but he can play, and here showed as much. He batted with tenacity and skill, and it ultimately took quite the delivery from Anderson to remove him. Ah yes, Anderson – the relief on his face at finally taking his 500th Test wicket was obvious. Landmarks are funny things – players may deny that they matter until they’re blue in the face, but few believe them, and nor should they. A cricketer’s motivation has to be personal as much as for the team, particularly when they’ve played for any length of time. Cricket is a strange game, it may nominally be a team one, but it’s highly individual. Batsmen don’t celebrate a hundred because the extra run from 99 matters to the team, but because the century matters to them personally. There’s nothing wrong with that, personal pride in performance translates to a contribution for the team, that’s really rather the point in measuring individual records and averages. Anderson’s achievement is one he celebrated, and he’s damn right to do so.
Longevity in a seam bowler is just a little more special than it is for a batsman or a spinner, the hard yards in training, the stress on the body and the physical decline after the age of 30 all make it just that bit different. At various times in his career he’s been mangled by well meaning coaches, spent entire tours bowling at cones while not coming close to selection, and been dismissed as a talent who would bowl one four ball an over. It wasn’t until a decade into his England Test career that he got his average below 30, and it has continued to drop ever since. There has always been discussion about Anderson’s place in the list of great bowlers; often with him being dismissed as ordinary by those who really should know better. There is certainly a significant difference between his performances home and away, but he’s not the first to have that problem, not even towards the very top of the list of all time wicket takers. At home, in English conditions, where he does play half his matches, he has been exceptional, and he still is. He may go on for a few years yet, and there are few signs of waning powers, more the up and down form that afflicts any player. There have been better bowlers than Anderson, but there are very, very few who are as clever and skilful. When he finally goes, the art of bowling will be poorer for his absence.
Anderson wasn’t the only bowler today who had cause to be proud of his efforts. Kemar Roach has had a career that has been somewhat up and down, but he bowled beautifully throughout the England innings, his five wicket haul being entirely deserved. At the end of play, his warm words for Anderson himself on his achievement reflected as well upon him as a person as his efforts on the field did as a bowler.
The forecast for tomorrow is rather better, and offers the West Indies an opportunity to put England under real pressure, should they bat deep into the day. The odds may be on England to bowl them out and chase a small target, but having been part of those (i.e. more or less everyone) who got it wrong repeatedly during the reviews of each day of the second Test, claiming to know where this one’s going is a mug’s game. Shai Hope is still there, Roston Chase is still there, and Jermaine Blackwood could do anything from the crass to the brilliant.
This West Indies tour has been the highlight of the cricketing summer. Quite astonishing.