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August 19, 2004
Watching England in 2004 has been like watching one of those time-lapse photography sequences so beloved of David Attenborough. Over the past six months, a great, big, beautiful butterfly of a cricket team has been emerging in front of our eyes, but it is only now, in this very match, that the last traces of chrysalis have been peeled away.
No Nasser Hussain, no Mark Butcher, no Graham Thorpe. One by one, England's gnarled old veterans have fallen by the wayside - albeit temporarily in most cases. But if this team is to soar any further, it will have to be those flighty young things who catch the passing breeze, without, of course, been blown away themselves in the process.
The situation in this Test - the last of eight in quick succession against West Indies - could not be further removed from the first, in Jamaica way back in March. Evolution has taken its toll since then, and only six players survive. But at the start of that Caribbean series, England's recent Test history was not nine wins out of ten, but one thumping great innings-and-215-run defeat against Sri Lanka in Colombo. Consequently, the early part of that tour was all about grit and survival.
But the more things change, the more they stay the same, and today, on the first afternoon of the Test, grit and survival was suddenly back in fashion. At 64 for 3 with two men on 0, what would England have given then for the sight of Graham Thorpe, on his home ground, striding out of the pavilion to counterattack in his uniquely gap-picking manner?
Instead, England were rescued by Ian Bell, the third sub-editor's wet dream to have made his mark in this series, following hot on the heels of Andrew "waltzin'" Strauss and Robert "the solution" Key. Bell, who has long been likened to Michael Atherton in temperament and technique, played an absolute doppelganger of an innings - refusing even to wince when he was struck a fearful blow on the shoulder; driving and cutting with style and common sense, and even falling to a jaffa when a century was the least he deserved.
In partnership with Michael Vaughan, Bell rescued England's fortunes, and laid the foundations for Andrew Flintoff's murderous dismissal of the old ball late in the day. Since being dangled the possibility of a debut in New Zealand three winters ago, Bell has had to wait his turn longer than most, and yet he is still on 22 - the embodiment of an old head on young shoulders.
Bell's mature innings had a strangely galvanising effect on his captain. Anyone who witnessed Vaughan's own baptism of fire, at Johannesburg in 1999-2000, could never accuse him of being an immature batsman, but he has nonetheless had to grow up dramatically in the past year. And on this occasion, with Marcus Trescothick already gone, he suddenly found himself stripped of all his lieutenants.
Vaughan's response was to go in search of ugly runs. To liken his style to Nasser Hussain's would be an insult to aesthetics, for no mindset can ever fetter that cover-drive, but his innings had undoubtedly taken a leaf out of Nasser's book of No. 4 crisis management. And, unusually for Vaughan, it also meant he failed to convert a half-century into a hundred - his ratio now reads 13-10.
If there was any statistic designed to highlight the changing of England's guard, it was this: for the first time in 13 years and exactly 150 Tests, they took the field without a single Surrey player in their ranks. The beginning of that sequence came against West Indies, again at The Oval, in 1991, when Alec Stewart was recalled, and England squared the series in dramatic fashion.
That match in itself proved to be a major landmark in England's evolution. How might this one be viewed, a decade down the line?
What's wrong with their cricket? Well, what isn't?