Wild card Antigua wicket puts England in a tangle yet again

West Indies seized the initiative with the help of the weather

England’s Ben Stokes reacts after being hit on the hand during the first day of the second Test between West Indies and England at Sir Vivian Richards Stadium in St John’s, Antigua. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

England’s Ben Stokes reacts after being hit on the hand during the first day of the second Test between West Indies and England at Sir Vivian Richards Stadium in St John’s, Antigua. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

 

2nd Test, day one: England 187 (Moeen Ali 60, J Bairstow 52, B Foakes 35; K Roach 4-30, S Gabriel 3-45, A Joseph 2-38), West Indies 30-0.

There was a mildly patronising theory doing the rounds after West Indies went 1-0 up in Barbados that the call would go out to the groundstaff of Antigua and St Lucia with instructions to kill the pitches; that somehow the best chance for Jason Holder’s side to regain the Wisden Trophy was to protect their lead with draws rather than duke it out.

Things do not quite work like that in the Caribbean. Yes, there is a central curator, Ken Grafton, who travels around the islands trying to instil best practice and encourage greater consistency. But the region’s volatile weather prevents such exact science and after a week of both scorching sun and occasional stair-rodding rain, what emerged on day one at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium in North Sound was anything but a wicket designed for a stalemate.

Among the 7,000 travelling supporters who lined the grass banks and frolicked in the swimming pool was an old Barmy Army T-shirt from the 1998 tour to these parts. Presumably printed midway through that trip, it had an asterisk next to Sabina Park – the Test that was forced to be abandoned only 62 balls in after a corrugated pitch and the lethal combination of Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh left England 17 for three and with various body parts being dunked in buckets of ice.

Things never got quite so extreme on day one in Antigua as they were in Jamaica back then. But nevertheless, when England reached lunch on 78 for four – a scoreline that on other days would prompt inquests into the latest offerings of a clown car top-order – it almost felt a minor triumph given the variable bounce that made pushing forward fraught with danger – and not just as regards the batsman’s wicket.

Jonny Bairstow eschewed the “hunker down” approach and instead punished anything loose for a counterattacking 52. Not everyone enjoyed themselves out in the middle, however. Far from it.

Just ask Joe Root, undone by a brutish lifter off a length from Alzarri Joseph that flew off the bat handle and was taken by the acrobatic slip pairing of John Campbell and Shai Hope. Or Ben Stokes, who wore a spiteful delivery on his left hand amid a running verbal battle with Shannon Gabriel, one that was bubbling up into great theatre before the hulking Trinidadian shut it down with a fine leg-cutter from wide of the crease.

Then there was Ben Foakes, who ended the day receiving treatment to his right hand after being struck by Gabriel upon dismissal, with Bairstow, his rival for the gloves, returning behind the stumps during England’s late hunt for wickets.

All of which made England’s second saviour on the day – a relative term amid a total of 187 all out – all the more unlikely. Moeen Ali came into this match rather fortunate to still be at No 7 in the order. His winter form with the bat has been rotten, averaging 9.7 from eight innings, and before Barbados, where he suffered a grim pair, he confessed to having lost the patience for the long innings and with it a desire to bat higher up.

And yet a player who also has a reputation for being a touch windy against the short ball somehow found a way, shrugging off a crunching Gabriel bouncer to his helmet early on to craft 60 from 104 balls.

Granted things got easier as the ball softened and the less threatening Roston Chase entered the fray. But Moeen’s stand of 85 with Foakes (35) ensured, at the very least, this series was not lost in space of only five days and flipped a few preconceptions on their head.

So too have West Indies, who appear keen to sprint to the line early rather than grind out a series win. When it comes to pitches they are a bit like Doc Brown at the end of Back to the Future: where they are going, they do not need roads. – Guardian

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