International cricket made a remarkable comeback after a four-month long hiatus in the form of Test cricket. On a slow Southampton pitch, there was no shortage of intriguing contests between bat and ball for the entirety of the Test match. Even though West Indies inched closer towards their target at tea on day five, the pendulum had enough potential to swing the other way in the final session.
The visitors held onto their nerves to knock off the runs and continue their dominance over England under Jason Holder. West Indies have now won four out of six Tests against England since Holder took over the reigns.
West Indies looked more prepared for the series. It was evident in their bowling performance. The series can arguably be perceived as a battle between the pace batteries and West Indies won the first round with firm discipline. While England, lured by the pace of Jofra Archer and Mark Wood, went overboard with the short stuff (43 percent short deliveries/back of a length deliveries as compared to 35.1 by West Indies) at Southampton, the visitors focused on control - pitching 63.4 percent of their deliveries in the good and full length area against England’s 56.1.
Although Stokes contributed largely to England’s short ball stuff hitting a majority of his deliveries in the back of a length area, he was also the most effective on that length making the batsmen fish outside the stumps. Archer and Wood, on the other hand, strayed towards the leg stump squandering their energy.
Line and lengths, though, can be improved as the series progresses, between innings - as Archer showed by bowling much fuller in the second innings - and between spells. The elephant in the England camp though is their batting.
Stokes was brave in opting to bat first but his batsmen made him look stupid in his first outing as a captain. England’s batting woes have continued to stifle them early in Tests at home. The trend followed in Southampton. West Indies will attempt to exploit their opponents’ Achilles heel in Manchester as well.
The hosts don’t have to look too far for inspiration. No batsman in the West Indies camp has a career average of 35 or more. Yet, they forged a spirited performance with the bat.
The Windies camp too have their fair share of batting problems. Their decision to pick Jermaine Blackwood over Rahkeem Cornwall underlined their scepticism with their batting line-up, which was missing Shimron Hetmyer and Darren Bravo. It later turned out well as Blackwood responded with a match-winning 95 on day five assuring his place in the side.
Shai Hope, expected to be the torchbearer of their Test lineup, averages the least among the lot - 26.7. Outside of his twin hundreds in the Headingley Test in 2017, his average dips to 22.1.
Kraigg Brathwaite scored 65 in the first innings in Southampton, his first Test fifty since July 2018. Generally, it would be enough to give him confidence but if the second innings was any indication, a tough road lies ahead for the Barbadian.
He stays on the back foot for a majority of deliveries against the pacers - an unusual technique for an opener.
The shift in Archer’s length in the second innings from short to full may well have been inspired by the absence of a front foot game in Brathwaite’s repertoire. In the end, the ball whizzed through Brathwaite’s loose front foot defence clattering into his stumps. In case he is found out, he will be brought out of his comfort zone in Manchester.
History suggests a helpful track for pacers at Old Trafford. Pacers have pouched 76 percent of wickets at the venue. Even in the second innings, the gap does not widen with pacers still accounting for 70 percent of scalps.
England have announced three changes in their 13-man squad for the second Test. James Anderson has been surprisingly rested after his only Test in seven months. Stuart Broad, whose omission from the first Test bewildered many may fill the void of the experienced pacer in the XI.
Joe Denly and Wood are others to be left out of the squad. Denly extended his Test career with a fighting fifty in the Oval Test against Australia last year. No hundreds in the meantime made him the frontrunner to face the axe for the skipper, Joe Root. Interestingly, Root himself has faced flak for his poor conversion rate but continues to be the lynchpin in the lineup.
Sam Curran and Ollie Robinson have made their way in the squad. Curran, with his left-armer's angle will provide rough for Dom Bess' off-breaks against right-handers.
Time is also closing in on Jos Buttler who has a top score of 43 in the last 11 innings. England coach, Chris Silverwood, nevertheless, has publicly shown faith in Buttler stating the team will persist with him for the glovesman role in the series.
In a dramatic turn of events, Archer has been omitted from the squad hours before the Test for breaching ECB's bio-secure protocols. He will now spend the duration of the Test going through isolation and giving two COVID-19 tests. This allows England to play both Curran and Chris Woakes.
Probable XI: Rory Burns, Dom Sibley, Zak Crawley, Joe Root (c), Ben Stokes, Ollie Pope, Jos Buttler (wk), Dom Bess, Sam Curran, Chris Woakes, Stuart Broad
West Indies’ selection looks straightforward. They are expected to field the same XI as it should be the case with a winning side.
Probable XI: Kraigg Brathwaite, John Campbell, Shai Hope, Shamarh Brooks, Roston Chase, Jermaine Blackwood, Shane Dowrich (wk), Jason Holder (c), Kemar Roach, Alzarri Joseph, Shannon Gabriel
West Indies have not won a Test series in England since 1988. This is a golden chance to end the long wait and coach Phil Simmons is expecting his men to consign last week's events to stay focused on the job in Manchester.
The match will start on 16th July (Thursday) at 3.30 pm.