Spin the wheel, captain
How much of a gambler is Andrew Strauss? The cricket world is about to find out. Will he have the nerve to set West Indies, say, 200 off 70 overs? Will he settle for, say, 240 off 60? Does he truly believe that losing 2-0 is as good (or bad) as losing 1-0? England’s final chips of the series are in the captain’s paw, the roulette wheel is spinning, Strauss is nervously twitching his bow tie, the croupier is looking at him expectantly, and Chris Gayle is puffing on a massive cigar. It has been a grindingly tedious night at the casino, but it could still end in a frenzy of excitement.
Given the state of the pitch, England’s almost Sisyphean struggle to take wickets, the increasing tendency of their best fielders to drop relatively simple catches, and the impressively decreasing tendency of the West Indies to subside at the first available opportunity, Strauss’ decision will probably make little difference – it will require a spell of Taylor-in-Jamaica inspiration from one or more of the English bowlers (most likely Anderson with the new ball, then Panesar with the old), and/or a collective choke of England-in-Jamaica proportions by the West Indian batsmen, as the fishbone of victory lodges in the oesophagus of tangibility. Neither seems likely, but either is possible.
Nevertheless, the skipper’s call will reveal much about his captaincy. Since the Sabina Park capitulation, he has batted admirably and positively, but England have consistently failed to gamble − in their batting order and declaration in Antigua, their selection in Barbados, their field placings (at times), and, arguably, in choosing to bat first in both of the last two tests – perhaps, given the state of the pitch, it could have been worth Strauss’s while to rip the Oval 1998 page from the Arjuna Ranatunga book of captaincy (one of cricket’s jauntier tomes), insert the opposition on a flat pitch, and give his bowlers maximum wicket-taking, limb-resting and conditions-and-umpire-aggravated-frustration-cooling time. Admittedly, England have no Muralitharan, but then again, they also have no Wickremasinghe, so it might have been worth a punt.
Gayle’s claim that West Indies have been trying to win throughout this match must rank as one of international cricket’s most bared-faced fibs, and congratulations to him for managing to make this outlandish statement without breaking down into a giggling fit. It might have been equalled had Douglas Jardine averred at the end of the Bodyline series that he just asked his seamers to hit a tidy line and length, or Ravi Shastri declared in his autobiography that he just wanted to entertain, and damn the consequences. However, it is now more than possible that Gayle and his team, despite doing almost everything in their power to avoid such an eventuality, may find themselves accidentally winning the match (with apologies to the unquenchable fire of Fidel Edwards).
The Confectionery Stall prediction: West Indies to close on 173-6 chasing 224 to win. Roughly. Whatever happens, it will at least give England something to focus on for the rest of the day before noticing that Australia are good again. Really good. And getting better. (And if the two series with South Africa had been counted as one six-match series, it would have been one of the great series of all time.)
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer