Onions ushers return to normal service
After a four-year hiatus, the traditional May massacre at Lord's is firmly back on the agenda. Through a variety of failings, some of England's own making, others the fault of the weather and a deathly flat wicket, each of the last six Tests at this venue have all emerged as draws, including three supposed bankers right at the top end of the season. But the chances of a world record-equalling seventh blank in a row are, to judge by the lack of fight shown by West Indies on a chilly second day, as slim as the MCC's prospects of avoiding massive refunds from their best gate of the match on Saturday.
After clinging, clawing, and refusing to yield throughout their series victory in the Caribbean in March, West Indies let their guard drop in alien conditions, and the moment's hesitation was all the invitation England needed to swarm through their defences. Graham Onions will rightly take the plaudits, but for West Indies, six dropped catches in a wasteful final session on Wednesday proved to be the catalyst. Today it was not merely the ball but their morale which fell to the turf and refused to budge.
"It was a very impressive display by England today," said West Indies' coach, John Dyson. "They bowled with pace, they bowled with intent, they hit the seam and they bowled in the right areas. But if we'd taken the catches presented we were looking at a chance to bowl England out for somewhere around 225-250. You saw what they ended up with, and that makes a huge difference to the mindset, and I suppose the energy level."
And so it was England - themselves profligate in the opening exchanges of the contest - who puffed out their chests and rolled back the years. From the visit to Lord's of Zimbabwe in 2000, through to the crushing of Bangladesh five years later, England had won four of their six May fixtures on this ground by an innings, and a fifth - against New Zealand in 2004 - by seven wickets. "You can see they are far more comfortable in their own conditions," remarked Dyson. "It's got to be an amazing fight from here."
Given those precedents, it would be premature to get carried away by the dominance that England achieved today, although for the moment, Onions, the man with a surname that headline-writers cannot help but relish, will rightly lap up his acclaim. "Today I gave myself a pat on the back and I'm very proud of what I've done," he said, after returning figures of 5 for 38 in his maiden Test appearance. "It's just a brilliant day for myself really, and a massive confidence boost. For sure a day I'll never forget."
It was a remarkable performance from Onions, simply one of those days that defy all imagination. He rose above a golden duck and a first-ball long-hop to scalp three wickets in an over and four in seven balls, and then - after his Durham team-mate Paul Collingwood had dropped the catch that could have secured his place on the honours-board - he claimed the vital wicket without assistance by trapping Lionel Baker lbw. For the second day running, after Ravi Bopara's century, a sticky label with his figures was on the wall and waiting for his return.
And yet, without wishing to rain on his parade, peculiar performances have abounded in this fixture in the past - and as he runs his eye down the honours board tomorrow, the name of Ed Giddins might well crop up as a cautionary tale. In only his second Test, against Zimbabwe on May 18, 2000, Giddins claimed the remarkable figures of 5 for 15 in seven overs after Andrew Caddick had softened up the top order, but two Tests later his career was at an end.
There is no reason to assume that the same fate awaits, however. After all, another debutant seamer, James Anderson, also wrote his name onto the board in 2003, and he's gone on to do alright for himself. What is more, Onions showed a promising variety in the dismissals he created. As Dyson noted, England's taller seamers extracted more from the wicket than the shorter West Indian attack, and while swing was a gift from the Gods on a cold and overcast day, the arrow-straight effort ball that turned Lendl Simmons into Onions' maiden Test wicket might even have disturbed his equilibrium in Barbados or Trinidad.
"I think my job is to run in, hit the deck hard, use the ball, hopefully swing it around a little bit, and get some wickets," said Onions. "Some days you beat the bat but it doesn't work for you. Today was a day when everything seemed to work. When I went for 15 in two overs I thought it might be quite tough, this Test cricket. But then it all happened so quickly, and to get five wickets, it's a cliché, but it's a dream come true."
Such dreams were probably rather further from Onions' mind when West Indies embarked on their first innings. Far from being entrusted with the new ball to help calm his nerves, Onions, Tim Bresnan and even the usual leader of the attack, Anderson, were all relegated to make way for Graeme Swann and his peculiar new-ball escapade.
The idea of entrusting the new ball to a spinner was, according to Onions, a tactic planned far in advance, although in reality, the ebullience of Swann's earlier batting, coupled with his natural bravado, probably meant he walked straight up to his captain and swiped the cherry before anyone could intervene. With Ravi Bopara showing the way on Wednesday, cockiness has been an unexpectedly welcome trait in this new-look England dressing-room. It certainly beats the jaded complacency of old.
"We just told him to hit the seam and don't get it scuffed," said Onions, speaking on behalf of his fellow pacemen. The Swann experiment was unconventional and no doubt unsettling for the batsmen, but most of all, it was further handy evidence of the emergence of a new brains trust within the England set-up, which is a very welcome development after their headless chicken imitations at the turn of the year. And, as if confirmation is really needed any longer, it underlined Swann's place right at the heart of England's think-tank. It's hard to imagine Monty Panesar being persuaded to think quite so laterally.
To judge from Onions' early experiences as an England cricketer, the ill-winds of midwinter are blowing away with every day. "The team ethic I've walked into has been fantastic," he said. "I guess there's a lot of love in the changing room. There are people in there I didn't think I'd have the opportunity to play with, but today, after they patted me on the back, and said well done, I really did feel part of this team and I feel I've got a lot to offer."
The first thing Onions can offer is a cautionary tale. Last week, on the morning of his call-up to the England squad, he celebrated with six wickets for Durham as Somerset were bowled out for 69 in the County Championship. Two days and one follow-on later, Somerset had batted the game to a standstill by reaching 485 for 5 in their second innings.
"I realise it's going to be hard work," Onions said of the last rites of this contest, "but that's Test match cricket." But Dyson, who played in the Australia side who lost the Headingley Test after enforcing the follow-on in 1981, has rather more experience of how hard it really is. Especially for a team who, for all the application they showed three months ago in Jamaica, have not come close to replicating that intensity in this Test.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo