By Vic Marks/ The Guardian
England lose and there is so much to applaud. In the wake of West Indies’ victory heated debates have long since commenced. Where was Stuart Broad? Fancy batting in those conditions. What about Joe Denly and Jos Buttler? Why did we underestimate a team dubbed by one expert punster “Jason and his Out for Noughts”? And this is all brilliant.
The fear was that the intricate, expensive experiment of playing Test cricket behind closed doors in a biosecure bubble would be a flop, a cynical, anodyne exercise to harvest the pay cheques from the TV companies. But that was not the case. All the detailed preparations of the ECB were worthwhile (if only it could display such foresight in other areas – like the domestic calendar for 2021) and, crucially, the players of both sides have bought into the concept.
Of course we have an inferior spectacle with nobody watching at the ground, but somehow the TV viewer – this one at least – was increasingly captivated by the contest, especially when it was far from clear who was going to win. Beyond those deserted stands the players were never going through the motions; there was fierce commitment and mutual respect on both sides. There were performances of high quality, especially from the bowlers, with Shannon Gabriel and Holder to the fore.
Hopefully this level of competition can be sustained throughout the summer. One of the many challenges will be for the groundsmen. Simon Lee of Hampshire has set the bar high in his first match at his new home but the ideal – especially in back-to-back Tests at the same venue – is to have different types of surface for each game in order to change the pattern of the matches. That will take some special expertise.
Now the bandwagon moves to Old Trafford and, glory be, we are just arguing about the cricket – who to play and who to leave out? This is progress. There is not much time for rest and recuperation or for West Indies to relax in the glow of a famous victory. For them it is a matter of checking out the physical condition of their bowlers and hoping that they can send out the same combination – in the knowledge that Kemar Roach is bound to snaffle a few victims soon.
But what of England? They will not waste too much time agonising over what happened at the Ageas Bowl. Ben Stokes looked comfortable being in charge on the field and he played well – though infuriatingly with the bat, as he twice looked as if he would play the critical innings before over-elaborate footwork contributed to his downfall. He had two tricky decisions to make before and after the toss, of which choosing to bat in the gloaming seemed the most questionable. The evidence suggests that England misread the pitch; it did not deteriorate anywhere near as rapidly as they expected.
Now what? In an extraordinary summer there is a case for an extraordinary reaction: mass rotation. In the past the rotation of players has been discussed far more often than it has been employed. But given the weird current circumstances that mean none of the squad can play any competitive cricket during the three-Test series, rotation surely has to happen early if it is to work. Otherwise those on the sidelines will eventually come into a match as last resorts, completely out of sync, with cricket in the middle a distant memory.
There has been much talk about the depth of England’s bowling resources when everyone is fit and the complications that brings for selectors. Now may be the time to explore those depths. So for the second Test there is the case for an experimental overhaul, which would enable everyone to have a more informed idea of the best combination thereafter.
So the radical – and unlikely – course would be to pick a pace attack that looks something like this: Broad, Jofra Archer, Chris Woakes, Stokes. This would leave Mark Wood, Jimmy Anderson and the unfortunate Sam Curran thirsting for action in the last Test against the West Indies if required. I would also consider the spin bowling berth.
Dom Bess is improving fast and he did a very good job for his captain at the Ageas Bowl given that there was less help for him than expected (all four batsmen dismissed by spinners in the match fell from mis-hits rather than excessive turn). On the final day a spinner leaving the bat would probably have been more dangerous. On this basis Jack Leach, if bowling near his best, might have been more effective, which is the conclusion that Somerset have generally reached. Let’s find out.
The batting changes are less perplexing. It seems inevitable that England will just swap Joes, Root for Denly. Behind the stumps there is also a case for an experimental change, which would mean selecting Ben Foakes. For me, a long-time admirer of Buttler, that really would constitute a radical step, but, in the spirit of rotation, not necessarily a permanent one.
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