Let's take a look back at how cricket’s return played out between England and West Indies.
We don’t yet know when normal service will resume in life, but at least we know that this adjusted reality we’re forced to live in will include our dear sport.
England completed a perfect turnaround to clinch the last edition of the Wisden Trophy with a 2-1 scoreline – in the process becoming the first team to successfully overturn a deficit in two consecutive Test series – but that’s not the first memory that history books will keep of this contest.
For cricket will remember that its pandemic-enforced slumber, a lockdown of 117 days – the longest gap without international cricket since 1970 – wouldn’t have lifted had a bunch of players from the Caribbean agreed to travel, from a largely COVID-safe part of the world to England, a country which was one of the worst-hit by the deadly virus at the time of team's departure. All this, while having had to deal with severe pay-cuts along with the unknown future that hovered beyond their tour.
On the field, they showed up spectacularly at Southampton, and although their fight fizzled once the bubble moved to Manchester, West Indies played their due part in a series that engaged audiences more often than it didn’t.
Let’s take a look back at how cricket’s return played out.
500-star Broad is nowhere close to done
“To say I’m disappointed would be an understatement… I’ve been frustrated, angry and gutted.”
This was Stuart Broad’s first contribution to this series; a visibly distraught interaction with host broadcaster Sky Sports midway through the opening game – the first time he failed to make an English playing XI in a home Test for eight years.
He finished the series with five more wickets than any bowler: 16 wickets at 10.93, a breakthrough every 22 balls. And that wasn’t even the headline stat.
He became only the seventh bowler, and the fourth pacer, to cross 500 Test wickets; he did so in a Test where he picked up his first 10-wicket haul since 2013; he ended his milestone game seeing his average drop under 28 for the first time in his career.
Oh, and, there was also the joint-fastest 50 by an Englishman since 1986 to start the Test – his first in 44 innings, a period where he had averaged 9.70 and been dismissed for a duck on 11 occasions.
Three weeks ago, there was distinct chatter about this potentially being the beginning of the end for Broad’s time. It was a bit of a stretch even then, and most certainly is so now: Broad has 102 wickets in his last 26 games since the end of a miserable Ashes Down Under in 2017/18 – that’s more strikes than anyone else in Test cricket in this period.
Team ‘Branderson’ is here to stay. At least for a bit more.
Dreamy depth furthers England’s pace potency
The English pace attack accounted for 50 of the 56 West Indian wickets to fall in the series– their best outing in any series since 1912. They did so while averaging 21.34 and striking once every 44 deliveries, thoroughly outdoing a Windies pace attack, which was quite potent in its own right (32 wickets at 35.31, a wicket every 72 balls).
The difference lay in the depth. While West Indies were able to deploy only the same quartet of quicks – Kemar Roach, Shannon Gabriel, Jason Holder and Alzarri Joseph – England featured six out-and-out pacers, plus one Ben Stokes.
Heck, they were even able to field an entirely different pace attack from the first Test to the second (even if not entirely by choice); with the exception of Mark Wood, each member of this pool struck telling blows through the series.
Broad, as mentioned, was in a league of his own, but so was Chris Woakes: 11 wickets at 16.63, breaking through once every six overs – since 1965, no English pacer with 75+ wickets at home can boast of a better average or strike rate than him.
James Anderson continues to be more than a menace for most, and even in a series where he didn’t find too many wickets, he remained the bowler most difficult to score off on either side (economy 2.34).
Jofra Archer’s numbers don’t reflect a great haul (four wickets at 50.50), but having seen him over the past year, it’s easy to tell that this isn’t going to be a bowler defined by bare numbers.
Add Sam Curran’s left-arm angle into the mix, and that guy called Ben, and this is about as formidable a pace battery as one can dream of having in for English conditions.
The challenge in the year ahead will be to replicate some of that firepower on the more unrelenting surfaces in India and Australia.
England have Test openers again!
England’s next Test – against Pakistan, starting on 5 August – will be their 100th since Andrew Strauss’ retirement in 2012. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say it might be one of the first ones where both their openers will confidently take their place.
In these 99 Tests post-Strauss, England have fielded 18 openers in 18 combinations; with the exception of Alastair Cook (78 Tests), no one has featured in 20 games.
Yet Rory Burns and Dom Sibley showcased in this series an appetite to do the hard yards so necessary to survive as an opening batsman in English conditions. Burns averaged 46.80, Sibley 45.20 – no English batsman not called Ben Stokes fared better in the series. Burns reached 30 or more in all but one innings; Sibley had two ducks, but made up with a marathon century in the second Test and half-centuries in both his remaining innings.
The duo’s 114-run stand in the second innings as England piled on a giant lead in the third Test, believe it or not, was the first century stand for an English opening pair at home in four years; it was also only their second such stand anywhere post-Cook.
The lasting impact of the Burns-Sibley combine is best reflected, though, in this: West Indies bowled 529 overs in the series, and 202 of those were faced by the English openers.
Hope headlines listless Windies batting
Burns, Sibley and Stokes provided England with three batsmen who faced more than 500 balls through the three Tests, two of whom faced deliveries in excess of 600. However, none of the West Indian batsmen surpassed 500 balls for the series, Shamarh Brooks having dealt with 402 deliveries was the highest.
And it wasn’t just batting time that they failed to do, West Indies didn’t show up with the bat at all – their eight ‘proper’ batting picks averaged 25.39 between them; the corresponding number for England was 43.19.
The lowlight was Shai Hope, whose Headingley heroics now feel generations away. Hope’s dismal record since the start of 2018 is the stuff of nightmares: 607 runs in 17 matches at 19.58, with only two half-centuries. For perspective, Kemar Roach averages 17.64 in the same period.
It’s not like the others covered themselves in great glory, with the exception of Jermaine Blackwood perhaps – the match-winner at Southampton finished as West Indies’ top-scorer, with 211 runs, and was their only batsman to touch an average of 35.
No evidence could be more damning, arguably, than the fact that the West Indian top-three (Kraigg Brathwaite, John Campbell and Hope) together scored only two more runs in the series than Ben Stokes did in five innings.
Stokes lords over top-billing battle of all-rounders
The battle-within-the-battle as cricket returned was the duel between Ben Stokes and Jason Holder – the two highest-ranked all-rounders in the format, with the added impetus of a captaincy showdown for the series opener.
The first Test did give us a cracker of a contest: Holder took a game-defining six-for in the first innings, dismissed Stokes on both occasions, and was at the crease as the visitors reached their target on the final day; Stokes, for his part, made 40s in both the innings and was also his side’s leading wicket-taker with six strikes in the game.
But the sizzle turned to fizzle as the teams made the journey from Southampton to Manchester.
In one outing (the second Test), Stokes had the sort of impact most players worth their salt realistically aim at having through an entire series. He went from making his slowest Test hundred, and batting out his longest Test innings, to hitting the fastest Test 50 by an English opener; he bowled more bouncers than any English pacer had in the last five years, accounting for the most vital wicket, arguably, in both innings; on the final day of the game, he had enough energy to run and save a boundary off his own bowling and then deliver one of those game-changing wicket-taking bouncers.
Unfortunately, the game coincided with a dip in Holder’s form and fortune. Having taken seven wickets in the first Test, the Windies skipper was only able to add three more wickets in the two remaining games. His series returns with the bat, too, were well below par: 114 runs at 22.80, 62 less than Stokes’ tally from just the first innings of the second Test.
Perhaps the more telling mistake from Holder, though, was the decision at the toss on both instances at Manchester. Since 1884, captains had opted to bowl only eight times at Old Trafford, winning none of those games. Holder did so twice in as many Tests, and paid the price both times.
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