After all the agonising and the intricate planning the cricket has taken over, which is just what everyone wanted. A slow-burning Test match is reaching its climax and has become a compelling contest. There have been dull passages of play and some of the batting has been dour on a sluggish surface. But at the end of a wonderfully fluctuating day the situation has us all salivating. There are 98 overs to go and England lead by 170 with two wickets remaining.
England appeared to be cruising after tea with Zak Crawley posting a career-best Test score and Ben Stokes looking imperious, but the loss of five wickets for 30 runs against the second new ball transformed the game. It all happened so fast that with a fine weather forecast the draw has been taken out of the equation. So just three possible outcomes remain with victory for the West Indies the favourite.
The pitch was browner and blander, especially when the pacemen were bowling, but West Indies hung in and conjured vital wickets. In the old days we would advise spectators to turn up in their droves for an intriguing final day.
At first there were moments when the cricket was soporific. The English upper-order is not a thing of beauty, but neither is Jim Furyk’s golf swing and that has worked pretty well over the years. It is hard to think of a more pragmatic pair (to be polite) of English openers than Rory Burns and Dominic Sibley; Brian Bolus and Micky Stewart come to mind but all the evidence is in black and white since they joined forces in 1963. Even to an eight-year-old the contrast between them and Conrad Hunte at the top of the West Indies order was clear.
But no runs accrue for presentation in this game. Burns and Sibley do not bat like the traditional products of an English public school are supposed to do – both attended Whitgift. Instead, in the most utilitarian way, they may benefit England in the years to come. On Saturday, they added 72 before they were parted.
Burns with his quirky, jerky stance scores more freely; he can flick the ball off his pads with easy timing; he is busy and businesslike; old Surrey pros like John Edrich must be proud of him. However, his dismissal was unusually soft. He is adept at cutting off-spinners but against Roston Chase he slapped a rare long-hop gently to backward point. By then it was apparent this was the best day for batting and England’s progress was slow and sure. By lunch they had crept to 79 for one and there was not much acceleration afterwards.
The 52nd over was full of incident, which included the departure of Sibley for 50. He was bowled off the inside edge by Shannon Gabriel but it was deemed by a whisker that a no-ball had been delivered. Two balls later, an innocuous leg-side delivery was edged and Shane Dowrich took a fine catch.
Sibley has been dismissed in this manner several times and this is becoming a major dilemma for him. He does not have a wide range of scoring areas but behind square on the leg-side is one of them yet when the ball is outside the line of his body he edges too often. And everyone knows this. This poses a minor dilemma for opposition bowlers: at what point do they aim for his leg stump and beyond? However, Sibley’s position remains secure provided there is not a rapid reversion to four-day Test matches.
No one will be more infuriated by Joe Denly’s dismissal than Denly himself. Yet again he had laid the foundations for a substantial innings; yet again he departed when set, this time for 29, and it was a nasty way to go: an innocuous delivery from Chase was clipped gently into the hands of Jason Holder at short midwicket. Denly will surely now be relegated to first reserve at Old Trafford.
Crawley had batted fluently from the start; there was a sumptuous on-drive and some bold aerial shots against Chase. Unlike all except Stokes he was able to time the ball with apparent ease. It may be that he looked all the more elegant given the contrast with his predecessors. He accompanied Stokes for 25 overs, during which England scored 98 runs, a rapid rate of progress by the standards of this match. The innocents may have started to contemplate the timing of Stokes’s declaration as the lead had reached 135.
Two wickets in two overs banished such thoughts. Again Holder dispatched Stokes, who had looked in terrific form on the evidence of several punched drives down the ground. There was an element of self-destruction about his dismissal. He is seeing the ball superbly but he has taken to moving around the crease when facing the slower West Indies pacemen (Holder and Kemar Roach), sometimes down the pitch, sometimes back and across to the off-side. This may disturb his balance as much as the bowler’s rhythm. My impression is that Stokes is so good that he does not need to do this so often, if at all.
In the next over Crawley, aiming towards the leg-side, was caught and bowled by Alzarri Joseph and the game had changed. Jos Buttler could not arrest the slide; he was given out lbw but a review gave him a reprieve; then an inside edge as he attempted to drive against Joseph ricocheted on to his stumps. Now a weary Gabriel summoned up one last effort, bowling Dom Bess and, more significantly, Ollie Pope. Tune in on time.