As it turned out, the weather held off just long enough for England to take the last of the 8 wickets they needed to turn a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 series win. Only just, for mere moments after the final celebrations, the heavens opened. Whether that downpour would have been enough to curtail play for sufficiently long to cause West Indian chagrin is a moot point, for there was a sense of inevitability about the steady procession of wickets and little in the way of meaningful resistance. Jermaine Blackwood had a hint of permanence about him, but he too was swept away in a tide of wickets as Chris Woakes destroyed the middle order to finish with 5-50. If ever there was a day to come up with a Michelle and still play second fiddle, this was it, for Broad took all of the others to fall to a bowler, including both his 500th Test victim and also the match-winning one. The boy sure knows how to seize the limelight.
Much will be written about how this series was more about cricket being played at all, and the generosity of spirit in the West Indies team to come at all; they deserve the plaudits coming their way. Despite local outbreaks, the Covid-19 situation is much improved from where it was when they agreed to tour, and while at present playing cricket seems an entirely reasonable activity, it was far from the case when they first accepted the invitation. Cricket boards may have many reasons for acting the way they do, but individual players are the ones who walk the walk. It isn’t just England who should be expressing their gratitude, it is all of sport, both here and abroad. It may not be easy, and without spectators it may only be a facsimile of Test cricket, but all journeys begin with a single step. That it was the West Indies players who took that first step should always be appreciated.
For the players involved, there were the usual winners and losers. Stuart Broad himself performed the admirable feat of not only being highly vocal in his disappointment at being left out of the first Test, but of backing up his words to the point he was duly anointed Player of the Series despite missing a third of it. He’s been a peculiarly under-appreciated player throughout much of his career, his exceptional spells where he can destroy any batting line up often seeming to lead to irritation about his performances the rest of the time rather than appreciation of the box office displays themselves. Yet his record is a fine one, and more intriguingly, he appears, at 34, to be getting better. The lengths are fuller, the line straighter, and the sense of danger when he’s bowling is palpable. Perhaps now he is being accepted for what he has become, and with a career much nearer the end than the beginning, taken to heart as someone to be enjoyed while he’s still around.
For much of his career he has been the foil to James Anderson. At last, it appears to now be the other way around. He’s the main man in the England bowling attack, and revelling in the adulation. And why the hell not? The stratified heights of the 500 Test wicket bowling club is analysed in terms of bowling averages and strike rate, but in Broad’s case both are continuining to fall. In the last two years his average has been under 21, and his strike rate a quite exceptional 41 balls per wicket. At his age, it cannot continue forever, but it is something to be thoroughly admired for as long as it does. Nor is it any kind of accident, for his awareness of his age led him to make adjustments to his run up and action in the hope of extending his career. It seems to be working.
Ben Stokes topped the batting averages, a Test series coming of age in many ways, for although his performances had become notable over the last few years, this was the one where few could argue with the statement that he’s now England’s best batsman. And not a bad bowler either.
He wasn’t alone in having a series to look back on with some pleasure. The opening pair of Sibley and Burns both made consistent contributions, lending the first wicket partnership a sense of permanence that has been absent from England for quite some time. Those who complained about the scoring rate missed the point spectacularly; there are plenty in the England batting line up who can score quickly, but their repeated exposure to the new ball in a side all too often reduced to 30-3 suppressed their own ability to score, and laid too much pressure on Root. It would not be in the least surprising to see his performances with the bat pick up as a result.
Neither Burns nor Sibley are the finished product, nor are either likely at this stage to scare bowling attacks around the world. Indeed, their struggles to find scoring areas against spin made it clear there is work to be done. That isn’t the point, stability is sufficient in this England side after a period of anything but. And a word here for Joe Denly, who has likely played his last Test innings: his scores were ultimately insufficient to maintain a Test career, particularly at his age. Nevertheless, against Australia last year and South Africa in the winter, he did at least set a template for occupation of the crease that seemed entirely out of keeping with the helter-skelter (and markedly unsuccessful) England approach of recent times. He brought a sense of calmness to an innings that was refreshing in its rarity in the current age. There is no disgrace at all in not being quite good enough to make it in Test cricket, for very few do. To have been moved on having at least made some kind of mark is to have some satisfaction.
The jury remains well and truly out on Jos Buttler’s place in the side. His score of 67 in the first innings of the Third Test may be sufficient to keep him involved for the time being in the series against Pakistan, but he must surely be running out of time to be the man in possession. It’s all been so predictable, for his batting career in Tests is more or less what would be exprected from his batting career in all red ball cricket. Bairstow (if he can sort out his technical flaws) and Foakes are too good to be left on the sidelines by an under-contributing rival.
For the bowlers, England have something of an embarrassment of riches, at least on paper. Anderson is no longer the attack leader in anything but name, but he remains a highly potent weapon, even if one used more sparingly than in the past. Archer, Wood, Curran and Stone offer variety and potency – it is a greater selection from which to choose than appeared likely a couple of years ago when the bowling stocks post-Broad and Anderson looked frighteningly bare.
And then there’s Chris Woakes. It is always a temptation to note the weaknesses of a player rather than their strengths, and while his overseas record isn’t too special, his one at home is quite exceptional. There’s nothing particularly wrong in noting that as part of an overall strategy.
For the West Indies, there were few batting pluses, and those there were are couched in a sense of frustration they weren’t greater. Jermaine Blackwood, Shamarh Brooks, Kraigg Brathwaite, Roston Chase, Shai Hope – all flattered to deceive, all looked like they could bat, all got themselves out when set. Some are young and can improve, for some it’s likely this is just who they are. For the West Indies to turn from being a competitive side into series winning one (overseas, in particular), they need to find a couple of batsmen who can suggest they will be around for more than a session. It isn’t a plea for a world class one to come along – although they would doubtless be appreciative of that – but one who the others can learn from and bat around. Ironic it may be, but perhaps they need a Joe Denly to set the tone.
They have the bowling. If they ran out of steam by the third Test in quick succession with no rotation, it’s not too surprising, but they are a decent unit and complement each other well. There is enough with which to work, and their team ultimately falling short this tour wasn’t down to the bowlers failing to perform, but the batsmen.
There is a danger of being patronising in approach when lauding the improvement of the West Indies, and they remain some distance from being good enough to be regular (or even semi-regular) victors abroad, but the difference now is that it does at least look like there is a plan and a strategy for getting there. They may not succeed, but if now at the point where Caribbean cricket is making the most of the talent at its disposal, that is something. There is not the sense of desperation at watching a West Indies team losing that has been present for all too many years.
The West Indies leave for home tomorrow, with gratitude and thanks, and doubtless with some relief on their part to be in a warmer environment than Manchester. For England, an ODI series against Ireland follows before the Pakistan Test matches begin. Some more cricket to watch, and a perhaps a better sense of where this England Test team are going and how they’re developing. In April, this seemed like a pipe dream on so many levels.