England uplifted by rookie success
For 33 boundary-laden overs, with the sun sucking up the lateral movement that had caused such havoc in the first innings, and with Brendan Nash and Denesh Ramdin digging in for a 143-run partnership that screamed "what if", England were made to work for their win. In the end, however, two hours of solid resistance could not atone for six consecutive sessions of surrender, as West Indies' hold on the Wisden Trophy was loosened barely weeks after it had been secured.
Thanks to that late resistance, this was not a thumping that quite matched up to West Indies' own nose-rubbing win in Jamaica back in February, but England will not quibble about the minutiae. Prior to the match, Andrew Strauss had said his team was out for revenge, and when he himself blazed the winning runs through the covers shortly after 6pm, he delivered exactly that, as the earliest Test match ever staged in England came to an end before the weekend punters had had a chance to sample the new attitude for themselves.
"I think by and large we played some pretty clinical cricket," said Strauss after the match. "You can't underestimate how important it is to win cricket matches. It lifts the spirit in the team and makes people feel they are part of something slightly special. It gives everyone confidence and the more you do it, the more you believe you can win when the chips are down. We've won one now, but we really need to win another one next week."
Strauss knows better than most just how incredible that winning feeling can be. From the moment he made his debut in May 2004, England won eight Tests in a row as a part of an unparalleled run of six series wins on the trot, culminating of course in the 2005 Ashes. Since then, however, victory has been a somewhat rarer commodity. This was the first time they had won the first Test of a rubber for four years and 15 series, and whatever the result in Durham next week, it will not alter the fact that England have beaten only two Test nations since surrendering the Ashes in January 2007 - West Indies at home, and New Zealand home and away.
With that in mind, rather more evidence of an upturn in fortunes will be required before it can be claimed that England are truly back on track, but nevertheless, they could hardly have hoped for a more uplifting start to a new era. The Man of the Match was an attacking spinner with genuine allround credentials. The stand-out batsman was a rookie who oozed class and confidence as he overcame a dicey first-day scoreline. And the most impressive seamer was a debutant who produced accuracy, aggression and variety to claim a remarkable five-wicket haul.
As a batsman, Strauss was particularly impressed with Bopara's composed performance. "On day one, the wicket was a bit green, it nipped around a bit, and we needed someone to front up and play the conditions," he said. "Ravi did that, and it was encouraging to see that from a guy who hasn't played a lot before. It's more of an examination of his temperament and character than for a guy who's played 50-odd Tests."
Perverse as it may sound, one of the most heartening aspects of England's victory was the utter anonymity of two particular 50-Test veterans. Andrew Flintoff did not play and was not missed, not even in terms of being the life and soul of the dressing-room - when he did pop in to say hello, his most notable contribution was to jinx Onions by wishing him luck before he went out to bat. Meanwhile Kevin Pietersen most definitely played. He, like Onions, recorded a golden duck, but contributed neither a catch nor an over to the quietest match of his four-year career.
To remark on Pietersen's plight should not be taken as schadenfreude. For all his undoubted brilliance, in recent months, England have developed an unhealthy reliance on his runs. Prior to this match, of the eight Tests that they had won since their 5-0 thumping in the 2006-07 Ashes, Pietersen had contributed four centuries (one of them a double against West Indies in 2007) and averaged a hefty 59.85. In 12 often high-scoring draws his figures are even better - 66.58, with six hundreds. In seven defeats, however, his average shrivels to 27.71 with a best of 97. Where he fails to lead, his team-mates have been far too keen to follow.
"There have been times over the last 18 months when we've relied on him far too much," admitted Strauss. "He'll come back, all great players come back quickly, and he'll score hundreds for us this summer, but for a really successful summer we need contributions from all 11 players, and it's good to see it from some different faces."
As for Flintoff, he will surely be back, but given his fitness record, and the unavoidable truths about his impact with bat and ball (no centuries or five-wicket hauls since 2005), any way in which England can avoid strapping too many burdens to his back has to be for the team's greater good. To that end, the successful promotions of Matt Prior to No. 6 and Stuart Broad to No. 7, not to mention Swann's flamboyant half-century, add an extra comfort zone to England's permutations for the rest of the summer.
"Matt Prior is a genuine No.6 bat for me, he has proved it time and time again," said Strauss. "Asking Broad to step up to No. 7 was an elevation but he got stuck in well, while Swann went out and played his natural game. I told him not to start thinking about your batting now that we are playing five bowlers, because he is a wonderful timer of the ball.
"You'd be hard-pressed to find too many negatives out of this game, and I wouldn't want to," said Strauss. Having inherited the side in awkward circumstances in the winter, he's made a tidy start in his quest to mould a new improved unit. Just so long as no-one, players or public alike, gets carried away by the achievement thus far, the past three days will have been very well spent.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo