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Michael Vaughan and Andrew Flintoff may have kissed and made up, but the denials and rebuttals continued to pour forth on the first day at Old Trafford
June 7, 2007
Michael Vaughan and Andrew Flintoff may have kissed and made up, but the denials and rebuttals continued to pour forth on the first day at Old Trafford. This time, however, they were being issued from the West Indies camp. On the evidence displayed at Headingley, there was nothing left to be played for in this series. A record defeat had been inflicted by an England team that had barely needed to break sweat, and the Caribbean's once-bottomless supply of fast bowlers seemed finally, agonisingly, to have gone the way that is destined for the polar icecaps.
But then suddenly came the statement of aggression that had the game had feared was never going to be voiced. It was delivered by Fidel Edwards, a diminutive slingshot with an action not dissimilar to Sri Lanka's man of the moment, Lasith Malinga. He was raw, he was rapid, he leaked runs by the gallon. And until he detonated Liam Plunkett's middle stump with the ball of the day shortly before the close, Edwards didn't even get his name among the wickets. But what he did do was inject some urgency into the day - and the series. And his grateful colleagues were on hand to reap the dividends.
Edwards, of course, has scented English blood before. He played in three of the four Tests on the 2004 tour, as well as the Caribbean campaign that preceded it, where he and another pint-sized paceman, Tino Best, did their utmost to defend what was then still a proud West Indian home record. At Bridgetown in the second Test, he bowled like the wind to reduce England to 116 for 6, only for Graham Thorpe to turn the innings - and the match - around with a brilliant unbeaten 119. It's arguable that the contests between English batsmen and West Indian bowlers have never been quite the same since.
Until, however fleetingly, today. "That is exactly what we expected from Fidel," said Daren Ganga, captaining West Indies for the first time in the absence of Ramnaresh Sarwan, and very happy to camp for the most part under the lid at short leg. "Our attack has lacked a little penetration, but Fidel is that type of bowler. It was a very good day for us. We showed our competitiveness right throughout, which was very important. The first hour really wasn't too pleasant in terms of runs scored, but we held ourselves together and it was a total team effort."
That first hour was an eyebrow-raiser. Despite winning the toss under thick cloud cover, and on the same rock-hard strip that a certain Steve Harmison had exploited to the tune of 11 wickets last summer, England chose to bat and were soon hurtling along at a run a ball, against bowling that was as green but threatening as the pitch itself. Andrew Strauss failed to survive, Michael Vaughan did but twice fizzed leave-alone strokes to the third man boundary. Only Alastair Cook - with long-limbed insouciance and confidence coursing through his veins - looked in any sort of command.
Did you see that finish, right in the top corner? I think he's just ordered two extra helmets
Alastair Cook admires the bouncer that pinned Steve Harmison on the forehead
"It was a good cricket wicket, there was plenty for the bowlers," said Cook afterwards, initially answering all press enquiries with the caginess you'd expect from a man whose captain has been through the media mincer. But on the issue of the pitch there was little equivocation. "I think Old Trafford is the quickest wicket I've played on," he said. "A lot is written about how quick Australian wickets are - they may get bounce, but that flew through today, and last year as well."
And if that verdict isn't enough to whet Harmison's enigmatic appetite, then nothing ever will. This evening he was all smiles during his short unbeaten visit to the crease, which was a huge encouragement to England's fans and a cause for slight trepidation for West Indies, seeing as three of his five deliveries were banged in short and very much on target. He ducked one, glanced the second with his ribs, then nutted the third flush on his three lions crest. "Did you see that finish, right in the top corner?" joked an admiring Cook. "I think he's just ordered two extra helmets."
Whether those helmets are for himself or the West Indian batsmen, only time will tell. Harmison's first task will be to help Ian Bell build on another majestically paced innings. Bell has stressed on several occasions that he would sooner serve England as a Test match No. 3, but on this evidence it seems he doth protest too much. "Belly's loving it at 6," said Cook, after watching another innings in which his team-mate's true colours were allowed to unfurl.
It was crisis time for England when Bell and Matt Prior - in the first real examination of his batting credentials - came together for their crucial sixth-wicket stand of 98. And yet, with the agenda of the innings already established, Bell was free once again to bat entirely as he the situation demanded. His unbeaten 77 included 118 watchful dot balls allied to 12 crisp fours - emphatic proof that he was playing every ball strictly on its merits. In his 11 innings to date at No. 6, Bell has now passed 50 on four widely contrasting occasions, and he's never yet failed to convert to three figures. The stats certainly stack up against his promotion.
"It was very critical to break that partnership between Bell and Prior," said Ganga, with a hint of regret that they hadn't done so sooner. But on a day that began with West Indies so low that they barely warranted a mention beneath the Vaughan brouhaha, he wasn't about to complain too vociferously. "I was quite happy with our efforts today," Ganga added. "There was a lot of room for improvement in terms of extras [38 in all], but we'll sit down, assess, and try to improve."
And - as a footnote, in light of the week's hot topic - Ganga's appearance in front of the press was one of the most heartening sights of all. Cool, authoritative and clinical in his opinions, he sounded like a long-overdue voice of reason. Maybe, as the result of Sarwan's misfortune, West Indies have found the man they need to ensure that today's denial could yet be tomorrow's revival. On this pitch, however, Ganga will first need to prove equally cool at the crease.
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