Cricket

England vs West Indies: Jermaine Blackwood's heroics, hosts' fumbles, how Windies won a game that the world celebrated

  • Yash Jha
  • July 13th, 2020
  • 9:05:18 IST

“What a game of cricket. It doesn’t solve anything, cure anything, make anything go away – but what a game of cricket.” – Hugh Laurie, via Twitter.

All of us (the non-essential majority, that is) remained at home, as we have for the past four months; all of us continue to remain in the grip of the biggest battle of over a hundred years; but to those of us who call this glorious game our spiritual home, the last five days offered a surreal window, a phantasmagorical escape – to a world we’ve known so well and for so long, yet one that seems so distant, so out of grasp.

Our individual insecurities aside, the world walked into this week at Southampton not only with the trepidation instilled by a pandemic that has shaken our reality, but also a grave awakening of another harsh reality that no one forced upon us, but one we ought to have altered so many eons earlier.

Dr. Gregory House (a character played by actor Hugh Laurie in TV series House) couldn’t be more on the mark with his remark from the eve of the final day’s play at the Ageas Bowl – much as we might find our metaphorical release in it, it does, still, remain just a game, and the bigger battles are being fought by those braving the fight outside the safety of any bubbles.

But this week (sincere apologies if this implies a myopic view of the world), it did feel a bit more.

Congratulations were in order for West Indies long before the first ball was bowled, for being here in the first place to allow international cricket to return after a forced slumber of 117 days; the cheers of the world grew louder still on Sunday, as they completed a thoroughly deserved victory over England – only their second in their last 21 Tests in the country – to take a 1-0 lead in the three-match series.

A look at the major talking points as international cricket returned from its longest absence in 50 years.

Three years later, Blackwood comes good...

Jermaine Blackwood, the star of the final-day chase, hadn’t been picked in any West Indian XI in nearly three years. His only appearance on any team sheet since October 2017 came as a concussion substitute for Darren Bravo towards the end of a pasting at the hands of India at Kingston in August last year. In his last three ‘full’ Test appearances, the Jamaican had tallied 15 runs in five innings.

Jermaine Blackwood scored a match-winning 95 for West Indies in the first Test. AP

Jermaine Blackwood scored a match-winning 95 for West Indies in the first Test. AP

Yet England would have known better than to take Blackwood lightly. Coming into Southampton, he had featured in six Tests against the English, and if you exclude the three games that West Indies lost, these were his performances: 112* and 31 in a battling draw at North Sound in 2015; 85 (in a team total of 189) and 47* in a series-levelling win, also via a fourth innings chase, two games later at Bridgetown; 49 and 41 (off only 45 balls) in that historic 322-run chase at Leeds in 2017.

Still, it’s hard to imagine that Blackwood would have got a game had Darren Bravo and Shimron Hetmyer not opted out of the tour; he would have been a possible exclusion even if the Windies decided to field an additional bowling option at Southampton.

To then walk out with your team at 27/3, with one opener out injured, and pull off any chase on any last-day wicket, is nothing short of stunning – the last and only time a target of over 100 was successfully gunned down despite the top-four batsmen not reaching double figures, the year was 1902.

...with a chunky slice of fortune

Spectacular it certainly was, but was Blackwood’s day five effort chanceless? Quite the opposite.

At five, Blackwood could have fallen to Dom Bess for the second time in the game had Ben Stokes stayed still instead of premeditating where an edge might go. At 20, he gloved a Stokes bouncer down the leg, but Jos Buttler couldn’t hold on to it. At 29, he virtually put himself out to dry in a brain-fade of a running attempt, only for Zak Crawley to completely botch a one-handed pick-up and throw. The next ball he faced, he saw an edge fly, literally, through Rory Burns at gully, although replays would reveal that Stokes had overstepped.

The last three of the mentioned offerings came within a four-over spell. Teams have lived to rue missing out on much fewer chances over the course of an entire game, so it’s hard to sympathise with the English faux-pas from Sunday afternoon.

That each of these reprieves went to a guy who now averages 55 against them, as compared to 24 in his 22 Tests versus all others, should clearly spell out the cost of the mistakes.

Ben Stokes reacts after dropping a Jermaine Blackwood catch at first slip. AP

Ben Stokes reacts after dropping a Jermaine Blackwood catch at first slip. AP

There may well be other errors that England’s critics are pointing to – the toss and a certain Stuart Broad most commonly, both of which were brushed aside by the stand-in skipper – but those judgement calls may even have stood validated had the hosts taken even one of the many chances on the final day.

‘Cannon’ Shannon, and a Caribbean classic hour

For all the ebbs and flows this game saw, you would still reckon England were the side that would have felt more bullish midway through the final session on the fourth day. They had gone into tea at a resolute 168/3, having batted patiently through the afternoon. But post resumption, Zak Crawley and Ben Stokes found higher gears.

England scored above four per over for more than an hour, with 81 wicketless runs being added 19 overs into the third session – the last 38 of which had come in the eight overs that West Indies had delivered with the second new ball. It appeared as though the new ball had fallen into the hands of a tiring pace quartet; at this point, Kemar Roach had conceded 11 in his last two overs, and Shannon Gabriel 21.

At this stage, England led by 135 runs with seven wickets still in the bag.

Then Jason Holder got his man in Stokes, and if that meant that the Windies had a foot in the door, the next hour was them breaking down the house altogether.

249/3 became 279/8 in a lung-busting burst of 13 overs between the Caribbean quartet: Holder did the early damage, Alzarri Joseph steamed in to remove Crawley and Jos Buttler, and Gabriel put the dagger all the way through the gut with the dismissals of Bess and Ollie Pope in the same over.

For good measure, Gabriel, who had sparked the first innings dowfall with three wickets in the stop-start beginning to the game, polished off the tail on the fifth morning to finish with a match-haul of 9/137 – the best returns for any West Indian bowler in an away Test since Courtney Walsh’s 10-for at Lord’s in 2000.

Stokes vs Holder: Strap in for an epic

Gabriel walked away with the man-of-the-match honour, but the setting up of the English downfall was as much his doing as his captain’s. Holder’s 6/42 crippled any hopes the hosts had of reaching a respectable first-innings score, while also being the best away performance by a West Indian pacer since December 2008 (excluding games against Bangladesh).

The second innings scorecard might show just one wicket against Holder’s name, but as mentioned above, it was the one of Stokes – the one that ignited the fourth-day collapse. With Stokes himself accounting for Holder’s sole dismissal in the game, it provided the first-ever instance of opposition captains dismissing each other thrice in a Test.

As far as individual battles go, there was no bigger draw for this series: a clash between the two best all-rounders in the game, with the added commonality of captaincy for the opener.

Stokes made 40s in both the innings, and was his side’s highest wicket-taker too (4/49 and 2/39); Holder added further gloss to his match-haul of 7/91 by being there to see off the chase.

If the opening bout was a trailer, we could be in for a blockbuster.

Thank heavens for DRS additions

The ICC’s decision to add an extra DRS review per innings as part of cricket’s COVID-19 era wasn’t really envisioned because of the officials of this particular game – non-neutral umpires were likelier to be a bother with host countries that don’t have multiple entrants in the Elite panel, and England, along with Australia, were the only ones that did.

Nine umpiring decisions were overturned by technology in the Test, seven of which were referrals from West Indies – the second-highest successful referrals for a team in a match. This, in no way, is an insinuation at any biases on part of the home umpires (this was the first Test since February 1994 to be officiated by two home umpires), but there’s no denying that Richard Illingworth and Richard Kettleborough had forgettable outings at Southampton.

Thank all powers for Michael Holding

For all that will be remembered from this landmark Test, and there is a fair bit, its truly immortal moment had arrived even before it began. The man who was called ‘Whispering Death’ in his playing heyday had delivered his most important spell in the game.

Volumes could be said about what was said by Michael Holding, but the only thing that really ought to be done is to watch it, listen to it, learn from it, and take the message forward.

Thank you, also, to Sky Sports, for a poignant moment in the history of all broadcasting.

Updated Date: July 13, 2020 09:05:18 IST

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