A pretty good opening day from England, and one that seemed unlikely mid-way through the afternoon when Rory Burns was (superbly) caught by Rahkeem Cornwall to leave England 122-4. Not tottering as such, but having left out a batsman to account for Ben Stokes’ questionable bowling fitness, certainly vulnerable to subsiding to an inadequate score. Having put England into bat, four wickets in the day is a mean return for the tourists, who looked somewhat jaded with the ball with the notable exception of Kemar Roach, a threat throughout. Indeed, Shannon Gabriel left the field in the morning, causing considerable alarm bells to ring. He returned, and bowled, but without real fire or penetration, though nominally up to his normal pace. Three back to back Tests is a real ask for any bowler, and while the first day tells little about the remainder of the game, it could be that the lack of rotation will cost them dear.
If there’s a certainty about cricket, it is its ability to level players, and thus it was that Dom Sibley, after his century heroics at Old Trafford, found himself plumb in front at Old Trafford, for a duck. A rather lazy run out accounted for Joe Root and Ben Stokes was removed in spectacular style by a superb delivery from Roach, swinging in, seaming further and bowling him through the gate. It’s too trite to suggest that it required something of that order to get rid of Stokes, exceptional though he has been, but it hasn’t been a feature of his game in a while to be so thoroughly beaten playing a defensive shot.
That wicket was the high point of the West Indies day. Ollie Pope joined Burns and after the latter’s dismissal it was Jos Buttler, under serious pressure for his place, who came to the middle. When bad light caused an early end to play, the pair had added 135 runs for the 5th wicket and were looking increasingly at home. Buttler is the intriguing one – his performances have been sub-par not just in Test cricket, but in all red ball cricket, with few signs he was coming to grip with it. The English game has changed to the point where a strong county record isn’t necessarily required in order to develop into a Test cricketer, albeit it’s a significant help to have a decent record to fall back on. No, in Buttler’s case it isn’t just that his county record doesn’t suggest he’ll make himself into a Test batsman, it’s that his Test career hasn’t suggested he’ll make himself into a Test batsman. It’s not unreasonable to suspect that this match was his last chance, Ben Foakes and Jonny Bairstow are too good to be ignored forever.
56 not out isn’t a career saver by any stretch of the imagination – or shouldn’t be, but it is a solid foundation on which to build. When his notable scores have been so few and far between, there’s no reason to think either that he’s suddenly cracked it, but credit needs to be given where it is due; he started carefully before unleashing a few shots as his confidence increased. His technique did look tighter than normal, and his judgement outside off-stump much improved. Who is to say what will happen tomorrow or beyond, but he batted well.
Ollie Pope has had a fairly dry series so far, but today he looked outstanding. His supposed similarity to Ian Bell seems to be based on his stature as much as anything, but his cover drive is also an attractive shot, and he is busy at the crease, turning over the strike and scoring at a comfortable pace. In his interview after play he didn’t sound like a man struggling at being left in the nervous nineties overnight, his entire demeanour is one of confidence, boding well for the future.
Rakheem Cornwall’s selection excited much comment before play. There are a few issues here, his size certainly is going to be noticed, but what was less talked about was his ability. His record is an impressive one, and while he doesn’t have a particularly active action, he also managed to turn the ball before lunch on day one. He wasn’t overly threatening, but not many spinners are at the start of a match on a fresh pitch, but he was controlled, and at 6’6″ clearly has the added weapon of getting significant bounce. We will have to wait and see how he performs in the second innings on a more worn surface, but the dismissiveness in some quarters before seeing him was neither fair nor reasonable.
What can be said is that it’s very hard to imagine England selecting a player with his physique, irrespective of ability. Cricket is certainly a game of fitness, but it is more a game of skill. The immediate suggestions on commentary that he would be improved as a player by losing weight were troubling, partly because it ignores the person, partly because it is faintly patronising about his talent, and partly because it implies that fitness is an aim in itself for a spinner rather than one factor of many. It is perhaps true, but it is not so self-evident it can pass unchallenged.
England are by no means out of sight, and the thin batting order means that falling in a heap in the morning is far from out of the question. But today was a good day, one player continuing to the look very much the part as a Test cricketer, and one hoping to remain one. The West Indies haven’t had a great last couple of sessions, and do look flat, but day two is usually the day to define the rest of the Test, and both teams are in this one.