Only the English will be disappointed after an enthralling Test match at the Ageas Bowl in Southampton ended with visitors West Indies deservedly winning by four wickets.
International cricket needed a comeback of this nature, and the millions glued to their TVs, laptops, tablets and smartphones around the world couldn’t have asked for a better spectacle.
In many ways, this was a surreal return for international cricket.
Empty seats and muted celebrations were only one part of the widespread changes necessitated in the game by the COVID-19 pandemic.
England, the haven of swing bowling, saw bowlers trying innovative ways to get movement off the air because saliva, an integral part of the modern game, could not be used to shine the red cherry.
However, that did not deter the visiting pacers from bowling with rhythm, accuracy and determination to scalp a dramatic win against the overwhelming favourites playing at home.
England boasted celebrated pacers of their own, most notably the king of swing, James Anderson, and the rising star of fast bowling, Jofra Archer, who kept someone like Stuart Broad out of the team.
They had, in captain Ben Stokes, another quality fast bowler and a genuine speedster in Mark Wood.
But the English quartet paled in comparison to the verve and guile of their West Indian counterparts over five days of quality Test match cricket.
The stars of the show were undoubtedly the Caribbean skipper Jason Holder and tearaway quickie Shannon Gabriel.
The two picked up 16 of the 20 English wickets during the Test with lead pacer Kemar Roach going wicketless in the match.
Holder, often questioned about his Test credentials as a cricketer, rose to the occasion like a gladiator entering the Coliseum.
His 6/42 in the first innings reduced the ODI World Champions to 204. Holder generated nip off the seam and showed genuine pace in his classy spell.
Gabriel was a revelation. He managed to extract bounce off the track regularly and hit the stumps with an accuracy that England batters, featuring class in Stokes, Jos Buttler and Rory Burns, found tough to handle.
In both innings Gabriel sent the wickets flying.
Indeed, the Windies’ strategy of attacking the stumps in the absence of significant movement was replicated by the English to good effect in the second essay with the Caribbeans chasing a tricky total on a dramatic final day.
At the beginning
One can surmise that this famous West Indian win was set up on the second day with Holder and Gabriel bundling out England who bat deep, with Jos Buttler coming in at seven. The conditions were slightly overcast, but by no means a pacer’s paradise.
Indeed, Burns and Joe Denly had dug deep on a curtailed first day to set England on their way to a sizeable total on the second.
The hosts were at 48/1 and looking reasonably comfortable having blunted Roach when Denly failed to negotiate the raw pace of Gabriel.
Gabriel castled many of his victims and the images of the stumps cartwheeling were reminiscent of the way Caribbean pacers of yore breathed fire; from Holding to Walsh, Gabriel seems to be the flagbearer of a sacred tradition.
However, despite his four wickets, it was captain Holder, who brought himself on last, who really upset the English applecart.
Slower than his opening bowler, Holder relied on accuracy, bounce and seam movement to get his wickets.
He got the prized wickets of Buttler, Ollie Pope, and counterpart Stokes in an identical manner, with all of them edging the ball to Shane Dowrich behind the stumps; a true testament to the sterling line and length the all-rounder maintained.
Back for seconds
However, with West Indies scoring 318 in the first essay in reply to England’s 204, Holder knew they were not out of the woods yet.
The Caribbean batsmen were talented but unpredictable and any chase close to 300 on the final day was bound to be tricky.
That’s why he needed his pacers to fire again.
With Roach having another off day, it was left to Gabriel to deliver the goods once again.
The Trinidadian did not disappoint. At 32, Gabriel’s story is that of unfulfilled potential.
Possessing the pace and technical attributes to be one of the best in the business, Gabriel has struggled to generate the consistency that can help him be counted as one as one of the top pacers of the world.
Maybe things are changing in the dusk of his career.
The English had no answers to his unsettling pace once again as he hit the right line and length with amazing accuracy throughout the second innings.
Gabriel picked up 5/75, while skipper Holder got the prized wicket of captain Stokes at 46 and Alazarri Joseph got two to make it 8 scalps for the pacers in the innings.
England folded at 313 and West Indies needed exactly 200 to script a historic victory.
It was up to the England pacers to replicate what Gabriel and Co. did, but, despite early promise, a resilient Jermaine Blackwood took the visitors home in a nail-biting finish.
Anderson, Archer fall short
Despite reducing West Indies to 27/3 at one stage in the second innings, the England pacers never really had the bit between their teeth in this match.
Anderson, the storied swing bowler, was a big disappointment, going wicketless in the second innings and picking up three in the first.
So much is expected of Archer in the coming years, but he fired blanks for most of this match as well, except one fine spell at the beginning of the second essay where he really showed his class.
He, conversely, went wicketless in the first and picked up three in the second.
Stokes or Wood never really managed the bite and verve of Holder and Gabriel at any stage of the match either.
Often, the English bowlers looked toothless with the Sun out and the ball not doing enough.
They failed to find that extra yard that their rivals did at crucial junctures.
Will we see the return of Broad in Manchester? Root, as he returns clearly, has a lot on his plate. His pacers need to stop misfiring if they want to make a comeback in what is turning out to be an intriguing Test series.
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