The first cricket series post a four-month hiatus is over. One can summarize it by saying that West Indies bottled an opportunity to retain the Wisden Trophy (Botham-Richards Trophy from now on). On Day 4 of the second Test, the visitors were well-placed at tea to ensure a draw which would have been enough to keep the coveted trophy. England, at that point, were four overs away from the second new ball. A riveting spell with the second new ball by Stuart Broad though kept England in the hunt and turned the tables to eventually clinch the series 2-1.
While there is nothing wrong in wondering about West Indies throwing away a great chance, in reality, the series exposed the difference of quality between the two sides, particularly in the batting department. West Indies were disciplined enough to chase down 200 in dry Southampton conditions but were not skilled to pose a challenge under overcast skies in subsequent Tests in Manchester.
Although it was known that England was a better batting unit before the series started, the magnitude of the gulf certainly made it clear to the world. The series highlighted many such trends which either governed the outcome or hinted at things to come.
#1 Windies batsmen’s tendency to stay on the back foot
Test matches are won by bowlers but can be lost or drawn by batsmen. The old dictum came into the spotlight in the series. Whatever the numbers suggest, it won’t be fair to say that the West Indies pacers lagged behind their English counterparts. The difference was rather created by the Caribbean batsmen who were unable to withstand the hosts’ bowling.
The main reason behind their shambolic display in the last two Tests was the absence of a front foot game.
Batting in England requires the ability to tackle the ball on the front foot. Kraigg Brathwaite went back to 64.4 percent of deliveries he faced against pacers in the series. Four out of his six dismissals came while lingering on the back foot. Four of Roston Chase’s five dismissals in the series were the result of an absent front foot stride - all LBWs. Throughout the series, there was no effort from the visitors to cover the chink.
The second new ball spell by Broad post tea on day 4 of the second Test was a masterclass on how to exploit such errors - attacking stumps with full-pitched deliveries. Overall, Broad pouched 14 off his 16 scalps in the series by pitching in the full or good length area reaping benefits at an average of 10.8 runs per wicket. The second highest-wicket taker, Chris Woakes scalped nine out of his 11 wickets from this length at 12 runs per wicket. Both topped the wickets tally despite missing the first Test.
#2 Win the toss and don’t bowl first
“When you win the toss, nine times out of 10 you elect to bat. The tenth time, you think about it and again you elect to bat”. West Indies’ skipper, Jason Holder opting to bowl first not once but twice in the series vindicated these golden words which have been repeated several times by former Australian skipper, Ian Chappell.
Since the year 2000 until the start of the series, only 37 percent of times did teams elect to bowl first in England; winning 37 percent of these games. An analysis of these small proportion of wins signifies West Indies needed to bowl England out for less than 200. They conceded over 450 runs in the second Test. One can still justify Holder’s decision in the second Test given it was inspired from the proceedings of their victory in the first. But opting to do the same in the third Test was a classic case of a visiting captain lured into bowling first by the overcast conditions. It was an improved bowling performance from Holder’s men but England still posted 369 on the board.
The overcast conditions on the first day of a Test match pose a perfect trap for visiting skippers. The first two days can be ideal for batting if the pitch is decent, which was the case in the two Tests at Manchester.
#3 An opening pair for England?
Between 2006 and 2012, Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook opened in 117 innings together. An England record, the opening slot was never more secure when the duo were in the middle.
Strauss’ retirement in 2012 kicked off England’s desperate search to find an equally capable opening partner for Cook. Over the next six years, England tried 12 players in the slot but could not find anyone suited until Cook retired in 2018. From two solid openers at the top, England suddenly had none.
However, Cook’s replacement, Rory Burns has now played the most number of Tests as an opener for England post Strauss and Cook got together - 18. He has established himself as a reliable pick.
His partner in the series, Dom Sibley showed a copious appetite for spending time at the crease. During his 120 in the second Test, he left 100 balls against the pacers - the most by any batsman in the 1,693 innings played by English batsmen since 2011. He is just the kind of opener they want for testing home conditions.
Opening 10 times now, the pair have the second-highest average in the post-Alastair Cook era.
Another aspect where they fulfil the requirements of an ideal England opening pair is boredom. In 2011, Graeme Swann described England’s top-order claiming that he struggles to keep his eyes open when they (Strauss, Cook and Jonathan Trott) bat but he would not change a thing about them given how effective they are. Burns and Sibley instilled the same feeling against West Indies.
#4 England on board with the rotation policy
In the first Test of the 2019 Ashes, Australia fielded Pat Cummins, James Pattinson and Peter Siddle as their three-man pace attack. With Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc in the squad, it was not their best pace attack but Australia were employing the rotation policy for a five-match Test series. Next game, they rested Pattinson replacing him with Josh Hazlewood.
In the same first Test, England had James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Chris Woakes. On paper, it was their most experienced pace attack but it was one-dimensional. England lost the Test by 251 runs as their shallow pace attack allowed Australia to mount 487 on the board in the third innings of the match.
A year later, England has taken a leaf out of Australia’s book. They rested Broad in the first Test and Anderson in the second. With six Tests scheduled in a confined space of time, rotation policy is the need of the hour. For England, its benefits go far beyond the present scenario.
According to many pundits, England’s defeat in the first Test was a consequence of benching Broad. Perceived as a backward step, this is actually a giant leap forward. Both Anderson and Broad are in the twilight of their career who require effective workload management in order to prolong it further. Resting them also provides a youngster with an opportunity to prove himself and gain valuable experience as England hunt for pacers who can perform in all parts of the globe; especially in Australia to boost their Ashes prospects Down Under.
Broad and Anderson have played 117 Tests together now - the most by any pair of specialist bowlers. However, we might not see a lot of them together from now onwards if England continue to embrace the rotation policy.
#5 Cricket amidst a global pandemic
Last but not the least, cricket fans must be grateful to the two boards who made this series possible. Both the boards went ahead with special arrangements setting an example for other cricket governing bodies on how to conduct the sport under the current circumstances.
In the process, fans got to witness unprecedented scenes - Test cricket in England with zero attendance, high-fives replaced with fist bumps, umpires sanitizing the cricket ball, Jofra Archer rubbing the ball up his back to shine it with his sweat and sanitizing stations at the boundary lines to name a few. We also witnessed Archer punished for paying a visit to his home breaking the team bubble.
The breach was so severe, had it been detected after the toss, it could have led to the cancellation of the series. ECB would have received calls from the UK government throwing the future series - ODIs against Ireland and the Test series against Pakistan into jeopardy as well. Living in a bubble also had adverse effects on the visitors who had been out of their team hotels only to play cricket ever since their arrival on June 9. Also away from their family, Holder accepted the situation of mental fatigue.
“Mentally some of the guys are a bit worn out. Same place, same rooms…it could be this way for a little while”, he said in the post-match presentation. Probably that was the reason behind West Indies' surrender on the final day of the series and will be a factor for every visiting team until things get back to normal.
Aside from the Archer gaffe, it was a series well conducted and played in excellent spirit by both countries. This should slowly pave the way for the game to come out of the tentacles of the pandemic. The cricketing world will forever be indebted to both the countries for getting the game back on its feet.