Test cricket is back, and lovers of the game were treated to a slow-burning thriller at the Ageas Bowl. Fortunes fluctuated, and the game was in the balance until the last half an hour of the final day. Despite the insecurities currently plaguing world cricket, the appeal of a Test match is as enduring as ever.
The essential ingredient to this compelling first Test was the growing resilience of Jason Holder's team. After a superb day of bowling, they followed it up with a stubborn display with the bat. Past West Indian teams may have squandered this opportunity, but the graft of first Braithwaite, then Chase and Dowrich secured a pivotal lead. Then on day five, after slumping to 27-3, the strokeplay of Blackwood and patience of Chase repelled England and gained a memorable victory.
They were aided by an England team which has developed an alarming habit of low-quality performances in the first Test of a series. After poor first-innings batting and a misfiring third day with the ball, England were in complete control on the fourth afternoon. At 249-3, Crawley and Stokes were engineering a match-winning situation. An all too familiar session of rash shots scuppered their best-laid plans. Each of the top six was guilty of lapses in concentration, a cardinal sin in the attritional world of Test cricket.
Despite the error-strewn first four days, England could well have won this game had some tough chances been held in the field. This will encourage a team that has often bounced back impressively after first Test setbacks. From a West Indian viewpoint, consistency is the name of the game. They are not daunted by England and have now won four of the last six Tests between the two nations. The impressive Holder will be willing his team on this week, to secure a first series win on English shores since 1988.
What more can one say about Joe Root? Due to a poor conversion rate over the past four years, Root has undoubtedly been undervalued by the English cricketing public. But make no mistake, he is a world-class batsman, averaging nearly 50, and is a maturing captain. England's performance will undoubtedly improve with their leader restored to the ranks.
Shannon Gabriel was a relentless threat throughout the first Test. His impressive pace, accurate line and discipline decided the game. With analysis and theories flooding the modern game, the simple tactic of bowling fast and straight has rarely looked more effective. But can he repeat the performance? His fitness is essential to a West Indies team on the verge of a huge achievement.
Form Guide (Last 5 Tests)
England: Won: 3 Lost: 2 Drawn: 0
West Indies: Won: 2 Lost: 3 Drawn: 0
Pitch and Conditions
England were disappointed with the slow and low nature of the Ageas Bowl pitch and were unable to unleash the raw pace and bounce of Archer and Wood. Traditionally, Old Trafford is one of the quicker pitches in the country. However, England's captain and management could barely conceal their frustration at the sluggish nature of the surface during last years pivotal Ashes Test. Whether the pitch is lively or flat, Root's men must simply focus on getting the basics right, with bat and ball. Cloud cover, with some rain over the weekend, will encourage both bowling attacks at Manchester.
England: Burns, Sibley, Crawley, Root(c), Stokes, Pope, Buttler(wk), Bess, Archer, Broad, Anderson
England have potentially dug themselves a hole with last week‘s omission of Stuart Broad. Do they stick to their fast bowling guns, or turn back to a tried and tested veteran? Joe Denly is the man to step aside for the returning Root, with Crawley pushed up to three. If last week was indeed Denly's final Test appearance, he can be proud of performing a difficult role in trying circumstances.
West Indies: Brathwaite, Campbell, Brooks, Hope, Chase, Blackwood, Dowrich(wk), Holder(c), Roach, Joseph, Gabriel
The all-round excellence of West Indies' display renders any team changes unnecessary. Presuming everyone is fit, they believe they have the measure of England, no matter the surface. Yet again they will expect more from Hope at four, and bank on Blackwood once again tormenting England's bowlers. The temptation to play off-spinner Rakheem Cornwall will be resisted, with Chase's accuracy forcing England errors on several occasions.
Overall Results in England
England wins: 34 West Indies wins: 31 Draws: 22
For more great England-West Indies moments: