If not on Thursday evening, then surely at some point on day two, Jason Holder would have wondered: was it wise to bowl first? Was it wise to ask his tired trio of fast men, as well as Roston Chase, all of whom had bowled long spells in Southampton to help West Indies take a series lead, to repeat the act with barely a three-day break between the Tests?
Did Holder elect to bowl because he did not trust his batsmen on a damp pitch under overcast and cloudy conditions early on Thursday? Or did Holder actually believe that he, Kemar Roach, Shannon Gabriel and Alzarri Joseph had the strength, motivation and rhythm to dominate England’s batsmen once again?
At 29 for 2, Holder’s decision looked justified. Soon after Michael Gough’s umpire’s call saved Root. West Indies were brimming with confidence. But Test cricket is anything but predictable.
As the innings stretched, as another dry pitch bared its slow nature, and as Ben Stokes and Dom Sibley showed they were happy to settle for a drip of runs rather than a flow, Holder’s decision could not be forgotten. West Indies limped back to their hotel rooms with helpless smiles and exhausted limbs.
That a breakthrough came finally after a barren spell stretching 94.3 overs was only because Sibley was forced, finally, to break into a trot as England started to look at a 400-plus total. Eventually England settled for 469.
Did Holder revisit his toss decision at the close, and wonder? It certainly seemed tough to justify in hindsight, especially when his most effective bowler in the first two days was the spinner, Chase, who finished with 5 for 172. But did West Indies bowlers actually struggle? Or were they plain unlucky?
The standout characteristic of this West Indies bowling unit has been their commitment. They have given it their full. Even Gabriel, who looked stiff from the beginning and returned several times to the physio table for treatment, showed aggro each time he was thrown the ball.
After bagging a five-for on the fourth afternoon in Southampton, Gabriel had taken a moment to deep-breathe and exhale. He had not played Test cricket for more than nine months since his ankle surgery last September. He then boarded the flight to England as a reserve bowler, and worked hard to earn a first-team berth. So to end as the Player of the Match in his very first Test on return was remarkable.
Then there was Roach. Wicketless in the series, yet he kept striving throughout the first two days, returning to each ball, each over and every spell with a big smile and a big heart.
Joseph, the youngest, bowled with control and aggression, getting ample swing before he was forced to leave the field on the second afternoon due to an elbow niggle. And then there’s Holder – calm, disciplined and bowling to a plan – and Chase, who found spin on an initially damp wicket right from the first delivery.
Runs did not come easily for England on the first day and that trend continued even today. While Sibley continued to leave any ball pitched outside off stump, Stokes was focussed on not throwing away another start, having done that twice in the first Test.
Needless to say West Indies feared Stokes taking the game away. On Thursday England ‘s control percentage (of shots) was 87%. Could West Indies reduce that with the new ball already due overnight?
West Indies started on the wrong note in the first hour this morning. Both Gabriel and Joseph, despite getting the swing, failed to attack the batsmen with fuller lengths while pitching in the channel.
Then eventually when they opted for the new ball, about 11 overs into the morning, both batsmen had settled. Also, it was Holder who partnered Roach with the new cherry, when someone like Gabriel with more pace and aggression might have created the pressure with the hard seam and swing on offer.
Such decisions can turn not just an innings but also the fate of a series. But West Indies quickly improvised. Stokes had been steadfast about leaving balls outside the off stump. West Indies were happy to bowl him that line and force him to take chances.
England’s control percentage in the first session dipped to 79%. According to ESPNcricinfo’s ball-by-ball data, Sibley and Stokes played 33 false shots from 156 deliveries in the first two hours, as Stokes’ control percentage dipped to 74% by lunch on the second day
As for England’s overall run-rate of 2.89 was their third-slowest for a completed innings this decade and the slowest since 2015. In the last five years, England’s strategy has been to score with almost reckless freedom, and while they’ve been at pains to change their ways since the Ashes, credit must be given to West Indies to reduce them to quite such a crawl.
Things could have been far more difficult for England had West Indies’ fielders been more sharp. Obviously the toil and the grind can easily lull the sharpest of minds as Holder spilled a straightforward catch on the first day at second slip, and went out of his way to avoid catching the eye of his bowler, Gabriel.
Today Holder experienced that same feeling of excitement turn into disappointment when Shai Hope failed to latch on to poke he had induced from Stokes’ outside edge. Both Roach and Gabriel continued to attack Stokes, beat him several times, but England’s best batsman, their talisman, kept enduring.
By no means have the first two days exclusively belonged to England. They are in control of this game, but they’ve been made to bide their time for that ascendancy, If West Indies’ batsmen can show similar commitment, patience and discipline over the next three days, their hold on the Wisden Trophy can could yet be ensured.