Key and Strauss in perfect harmony
Close England 391 for 2 (Key 167*, Vaughan 36*) v West Indies
Deck the halls with puns and clichés. On the day that Andrew Strauss waltzed to his third international century in as many matches at Lord's, Robert Key unlocked his potential and turned the first Test against West Indies emphatically in England's favour. By the close, England had racked up a distinctly Australian 391 for 2, and Brian Lara's decision to field first was taking on blooper proportions to rival any of the great captaincy cock-ups down the years - from Azharuddin at Lord's in 1990, to Hussain at Brisbane on the last Ashes tour.
In fairness, Lara's decision was based on sound principles. Batting first in all four Tests in the Caribbean hadn't exactly been a beneficial experience for West Indies, and the benefits of avoiding Steve Harmison on a damp, overcast morning should, in theory, have been amplified by the chance to unleash those young thrusters, Tino Best and Fidel Edwards, and lay down a few markers for the weeks ahead.
But despite the early wicket of Marcus Trescothick, who was beaten for pace by Best and spooned a catch to square-leg, it was soon apparent that the pitch possessed no demons, and West Indies possessed little guile to match their undoubted speed. Batsman-error was the most likely source of a breakthrough, and that was so nearly the case when Key, on 16, slashed at a wide one from Edwards. But Chris Gayle could only parry the chance at second slip, and the fielders' heads dropped.
As West Indies sprayed the ball around, Strauss and Key took full advantage in a second-wicket partnership of 291, a stand that beat England's previous record against West Indies - 266 by Peter Richardson and Tom Graveney in 1957. Strauss made the early headlines with 137, his second Test century, to take his international tally at Lord's to a scarcely credible 432 runs in four innings. But the star of the day was Key, a man who - like Strauss before him - owed his chance to another man's misfortune.
Last time around at Lord's, it was Michael Vaughan's knee injury that opened the door to Strauss, who made such an immediate impact that Hussain decided to beat a hasty retreat into the commentary box. This time it was Mark Butcher who sat out the match after suffering whiplash in a car-crash, and Key cashed in with an unbeaten 167 from a far-from-sluggish 225 balls. Regardless of the result of this match, there is sure to be a tricky selection meeting in the days ahead, given that the second Test at Edgbaston starts in less than a week's time.
Key's last Test appearances were in a pair of hiding-to-nothing games against Zimbabwe in 2003, but it was when the pressure was on in Australia on the last Ashes tour, that he demonstrated he has the mettle for Test cricket. Today, he showed that a run of low scores in the NatWest Series had not dented his first-class confidence. His innings was notable for its thumping drives and firm clips off his toes, but it also brimmed with intent as well. With Strauss at the other end, he had a constant reminder that when opportunity knocks, it's best not to ask it to call back another day.
England were 91 for 1 at lunch, and they had played the West Indian quicks with such aplomb that Lara resumed with the unlikely combination of Omari Banks's offspin and the medium pace of Dwayne Bravo. There was some logic where Bravo's introduction was concerned, as Key earned an unwanted reputation during the Ashes for losing concentration against the part-time bowlers. But Bravo bowled far too wide to tempt either batsman into an indiscretion, and before long the experiment was shelved.
The pick of a disappointing attack was Best, whose hyperactivity alone might have forced the breakthrough, and very nearly did when Key was on 58. Moments after a pull had whistled through midwicket, Key fenced uncertainly at an off-stump delivery, and Devon Smith pouched a low edge at second slip. Best and Lara had no doubt they had got their man, but Smith was less certain, and much to the bowler's chagrin, the umpires took this as confirmation that the ball had not carried. The TV replays, on the other hand, suggested it had been a clean catch.
Strauss added salt to the wound with two sumptuous cover-drives in consecutive balls off Bravo, and by the time Lara reverted to an all-pace attack, England were in full flow. Strauss, who is becoming as adept as Justin Langer at batting within his limitations, eventually reached his hundred with a fine sweep for four off Banks, and celebrated with a leap, a punch and a kiss of the turf that looked ever so slightly sheepish. If that was the case, then it's hard to imagine how Lara must have been feeling.
Not even a tea-break introduction to Her Majesty the Queen could distract England's batsmen, or lift the West Indian bowlers. Key, who was 90 not out at the time, needed just four overs after the break to reach his century, which came courtesy of a brace of leg-stump half-volleys from Edwards. He wasn't finished there, and cracked 11 runs off a Best over - consecutive pulls for four were followed by a smart push for three - and as Banks began to give the ball more air, Key advanced down the wicket to smear him through the covers.
West Indies had all but given up the ghost, when Strauss under-edged a cut to Ridley Jacobs off Banks, and trooped off to that now-customary standing ovation. It was a tough act for Michael Vaughan to follow - he needs runs in this innings for his own piece of mind, if nothing else - but he was just beginning to find some fluency by the time rain brought a premature close.
Premature or not, England had still clattered along at nearly five runs per over, and once again, the old hands had scarcely been asked to lift a finger. Was that NatWest Series all a bad dream?
Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo.