Mike Holmans March 12, 2009

Underdog day afternoons

Pitches which so effectively extract the teeth of bowling attacks that batsmen are only in danger of being gummed to death make Test cricket a test only of endurance

There is obviously an element of sour grapes to English criticism of the pitches in the Caribbean. Appalling batting in one session back in Jamaica has cost England an entire series, so carping about the conditions seems like bad-tempered refusal to acknowledge how poor England are or the advances made by West Indies, but really, this has not been a series which has been worth the watching.

All that has been revealed by the Tests in Antigua, Barbados and Trinidad is that neither West Indies nor England possess a spin bowler of the quality of Shane Warne or Muttiah Muralitharan, nor do either team have a pace bowler of the calibre of Michael Holding, Malcolm Marshall or Wasim Akram. This, however, is not news and two tense final hours were not really compensation for the rest of the fifteen days in which they were embedded.

Pitches which so effectively extract the teeth of bowling attacks that batsmen are only in danger of being gummed to death make Test cricket a test only of endurance. If it makes little difference who is bowling, we are denied the varying conflicts which make the sport exciting.

Still, from an English point of view, it cannot hurt for the batsmen to remember what it is like to score hundreds and run up big totals.

Alastair Cook, Paul Collingwood and Kevin Pietersen scored tons which told us nothing of interest beyond that they were in decent nick, and Matt Prior’s merely turned the spotlight back on his inability to gather the ball cleanly when behind the stumps.

Andrew Strauss’s hundreds were of more consequence. First, they emphatically showed that his batting is not adversely affected by the captaincy, but also welcome was a new adventure in his shot-making. The lofted drive over wide mid-on has not previously been a feature of his game at Test level, and it makes the prospect of shoe-horning him into the ragbag which masquerades as an England one-day team somewhat less horrifying.

The one who failed to cash in was Owais Shah, who did nothing to convince anyone that he is going to fare any better in the poisoned number three slot than Ian Bell. Amazingly, he is a worse judge of a run than either Bell or Mark Butcher; he is also building up an unfortunate record of going off with cramps when one of the chief requirements of a number three is to be able to bat for seven hours. Ravi Bopara’s hundred, albeit from the No.5 position but in hot weather and without cramps, therefore makes him look even more appealing.

The Strauss/Flower regime seems far less afraid of dropping under-performers than we have been accustomed to. Bell, Steve Harmison and Ryan Sidebottom were left out because they failed to do their jobs and there were viable alternatives available, which is as it should be. No-one wants to return to the 1980s/90s one-bad-match-and-out roundabout, but talking about competition for places if the incumbents always win is mere bluster.

So it was fascinating to see Monty Panesar’s reaction to being demoted to second spinner. The Monty who played in Trinidad was almost a new bowler, far more inclined to experiment than the old one and much the better for it. Graeme Swann’s experience and canniness made him the leading wicket-taker of the series; it may now have penetrated even Monty’s extra-terrestrial consciousness that just being able to spin the ball is not enough. Oh, and his wild appealing is no longer endearingly naïve but stupidly annoying.

Stuart Broad continues to progress and Amjad Khan made a shaky debut, but for me James Anderson was England’s player of the series. He is now a bowler of genuine quality, quite credible as the leader of an attack. His haul of nine wickets at 38 is not very impressive, but Fidel Edwards, his effective opposite number, managed to take his nine at a cost of 55 – figures which reflect the unforgiving pitches far better than the awkward hostility both men showed, but also demonstrate that Anderson has conquered his previous habit of having spells where he gets mercilessly collared. In English conditions where his talents for swinging the ball are usually more valuable, he could even be the key to unlock the display case containing the Ashes.

In Test cricket, being the better side means nothing unless you can close the deal by taking the wickets necessary for wins. England were slightly the better side in this series, but not by enough to compensate for an hour of madness at Sabina Park. Underdogs can still win series if they play well and catch their opponents off guard once or twice – a lesson which England may be able to take some comfort in while apprehensively watching the highlights of the series currently in progress in South Africa.