West Indies face battle to save test as Ballance helps build big lead

England declare 437 in front on day four and stunning Jordan catch leaves Windies two down at close

Chris Jordan took a stunning one handed catch at slip to remove Darren Bravo late on in the fourth day of the first test in Antigua. Photograph: Reuters

Chris Jordan took a stunning one handed catch at slip to remove Darren Bravo late on in the fourth day of the first test in Antigua. Photograph: Reuters

 

There came a point either side of tea when it was easy to gain the impression that this Test match was primarily about getting Jimmy Anderson to a record. He came into the second innings requiring another two wickets to become the most prolific wicket-taker England have ever had and was faced with a West Indies side who will have known they had almost no chance of winning the game and were odds against not to lose it either, needing to bat for more than four sessions in order to draw.

They looked to be reeling on the ropes as England biffed their way to a lead of 437, a total that no one in the history of Test cricket has achieved in the fourth innings to win. The situation looked ripe for Anderson. The crowd, largely England supporters, were willing him on.

This is not the Anderson of old though, and we may be watching someone in the twilight of a magnificent career: a miracle if he lasts the 17 Tests England must play in 10 months. There was a time in his pomp when his pace could touch 90 miles per hour without any loss of movement. He was a real handful.

Sluggish this pitch may be, but twice the West Indies paceman Jerome Taylor has shown what is possible with the new ball and the sort of extra zip Anderson once possessed. He is 10% and more down on his best pace, and it shows in the manner in which the batsmen can line him up. He is not so much looking to break the record, as someone once said of Kapil Dev’s search for the world record, as exceed it. Seven fruitless overs in two spells was all he was allocated before stumps.

Instead it was Stuart Broad who took the first wicket, in his opening over, when Kraigg Brathwaite failed to keep down a wicked bouncer that climbed steeply on the line of his body and was fended to short leg. They had to wait a further 29 overs for a second and it came in spectacular fashion.

Alastair Cook had rung his bowling changes searching for a breakthrough and finally turned to Joe Root, who spun one away from the left-hander Darren Bravo’s drive. The ball took the edge, and went fine at pace. The reaction of Chris Jordan, perhaps standing a little too wide at slip, was simply astounding as he stuck out his right hand and clung on as the ball was past him. In half a century’s cricket this correspondent cannot remember one better taken off a spinner. West Indies finished the day on 98 for two, requiring a further 340 on the final day. Devon Smith is unbeaten on 59.

England had left themselves 130 overs in which to dismiss West Indies following a declaration that came at 333 for seven and just over half an hour before tea. Twice in the match they had overcome tricky starts against urgent new-ball bowling – 34 for three in the first innings and 52 for three in the second – each time grateful for a highly-skilled, diligent century around which the other batsmen could prosper. First time round it was Ian Bell, with Root and Ben Stokes the support act, and this time Gary Ballance came to the fore with the fourth hundred of a career that spans only nine Tests and can thus still be described as fledgling. Already his credentials are of a high order.

If he was given a torrid start following the early dismissals of Jonathan Trott and Alastair Cook on Wednesday he got through that phlegmatically by the skin of his teeth and by the close of the third day, by which time the ball had lost its early hardness and the bowling some of its enthusiasm, he was already starting to accumulate.

This is a player whose technique at first sight might have bowlers who can move the ball into his pads licking their lips, for he goes across his crease in preparation but back too, which might allow the ball more time to swing. But it also gives him more time to see the ball and the movement is not unlike the method employed by, say, the Australian left-hander Simon Katich, who covered his off-stump, or the right-handers Steve Smith and Trott. Those players, though, use the technique to create a new line, so that off-stump becomes the new leg-stump as it were, and they can work the legside relentlessly.

Ballance still plays straight in defence, and when bowlers allow him any width at all he plunders the offside so that in the course of his 122 runs more than 60% of them came in the quadrant between third man and extra cover. One day, probably not too far distant, bowlers will stop giving him such width and he might need to readjust his sights, but for now he is making hay.

This time, before he was caught on the deep-midwicket boundary hitting directly into what, in golf terms, would be a two- or three-club wind, and therefore in any other circumstance than chasing a declaration a very-high-risk shot, he had received support from Root once more. For his 59 he played with the casual freedom of someone who knows he is batting well, until he played a defensive stroke into the ground only for it to bounce on to his stumps.

He also had backing from Stokes again, who made 39 unselfish runs in the cause, and Jos Buttler, who had laboured in the first innings for a painfully drawn-out duck, but with licence now responded perfectly with an unbeaten 59 from 56 balls. Thus did the fourth, fifth and sixth wickets produce stands of 114, 60 and 55, the last two at a decent lick.

Ballance reached his hundred by fastening on to a flighted ball from Sulieman Benn and belting it straight down the ground to the Ambrose stand and his celebration was exuberant, that of someone who, despite his start in Test cricket, had needed some sort of reassurance following a difficult time during the World Cup. It had taken him 233 balls but there were 11 fours and a six, carved over midwicket the previous evening but downwind this time.

(Guardian service)

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