Test matches (3): England 2, West Indies 1
Twenty20 international (1): England 0, West Indies 1
One-day internationals (5): England 4, West Indies 0
England's expectation was for a gentle, late-season workout against West Indies, a useful precursor to the Ashes. A few issues of selection and strategy would be fixed, before the team - a sleek, well-oiled machine, coiled for the fray - headed to Australia. Of course, it didn't quite happen like that. They did win the Test and one-day series (either side of losing the solitary Twenty20 game), but not entirely in the manner anticipated. After thrashing West Indies in the First Test at Edgbaston, they contrived to lose the Second at Headingley, where the tourists confounded everyone by knocking off 322 with remarkable ease. Any thoughts of experimentation for the Third, at Lord's - such as giving an exploratory debut to Hampshire's young leg-spinner, Mason Crane - were immediately shelved.
Yet this setback was infinitesimal compared with the events that followed England's one-day win at Bristol on September 24. The victory was hardly worthy of celebration - Eoin Morgan's team eventually prevailed in all four completed ODIs - but this did not deter Ben Stokes and Alex Hales from staying out late that fateful Sunday night. At 2.35am, Stokes was arrested on suspicion of causing actual bodily harm after a street brawl near the Mbargo nightclub in the Clifton area of the city. Hales, though not arrested, was with him at the time. From this point on, England's winter plans were in disarray.
The incident was bad enough for Stokes and the ECB, though they initially named him in the Ashes squad. But the video footage that soon surfaced in The Sun did not look good: it depicted what appeared to be a feral fracas, which left a man in hospital with a fractured eye socket. Stokes and Hales were withdrawn from the remaining ODIs, though Stokes would not have been fit anyway because of a broken little finger.
The ECB went into crisis-management mode. England's director of cricket, Andrew Strauss, announced that neither would be considered for selection "until further notice", and the board waited to see if Stokes would be charged. In the end, he was ruled out of the Ashes. Trevor Bayliss was desperately disappointed by one of his favourite cricketers. His admiration of Stokes as a player and a character had been transparent since becoming head coach in 2015, and he had been eager to give him responsibility, including the Test vice-captaincy. Yet that trust had been squandered and, at a stroke, England's hopes of retaining the Ashes greatly diminished. Hence their season ended in the most melancholy manner, even though the tally of wins and losses (18-6 across all three formats) was highly encouraging.
The victory at Edgbaston, in the first day/night Test on British soil, was so emphatic - by an innings and 209 - that West Indies were pilloried from all sides. It was, according to Curtly Ambrose, until recently their bowling coach, "pathetic and embarrassing". Other heavyweights were just as scathing. Before the match there had been much debate about the pink ball's tendency to behave devilishly as darkness approached. That pattern never emerged, but another did. When England bowled, the ball jagged around; when it was the turn of West Indies, minus their quickest bowler, Shannon Gabriel, who was not fully fit (and suffering from a rash of no-balls), it sped on to the middle of the bats of Alastair Cook, who made 243, and Joe Root, 136.
Despite several interruptions for rain, the game was all over by the third evening, when Stuart Broad overhauled Ian Botham's tally of 383 Test wickets. But England's first floodlit Test had its hitches. Warwickshire did everything possible to make it a success. Trading on its novelty value, they marketed the event brilliantly, and enticed punters in great numbers, though it was beyond their powers to keep them there until the close. On the first evening, thousands left early for an amalgam of reasons: the one-sided nature of the game, an eagerness to avoid the late-night snarl-up outside the stadium, and the cold and damp. On the second evening it rained. This all confirmed the suspicion that Birmingham is not quite Adelaide, and never will be.
After that match, no canny Yorkshireman bought tickets for the fourth or fifth days at Headingley, yet a highly entertaining contest, the best of the summer, ended with five overs to go (proponents of four-day Tests, take note), and West Indies triumphant. In Mirpur next day, Bangladesh defeated Australia so this was an encouraging week for those who opposed two-divisional Test cricket. England had not underestimated their opponents in Birmingham, but they may have done so in Leeds. Toby Roland-Jones, who had made such an impressive start to his Test career, was replaced by Chris Woakes returning from injury and in need of a bowl. And, despite a 169-run deficit on first innings, England should not have lost. Root was able to declare on the fourth evening, leaving West Indies 322 to win from 96 overs. All the experts applauded the move; there again, have the omniscient pundits in the commentary boxes ever chastised a captain for calling a halt too early? It did not work out well for Root, who joined Norman Yardley, David Gower and Kevin Pietersen as England captains who have declared in the third innings of a Test, and lost.
The assumption of Root - and just about everyone else - was that Kraigg Brathwaite and Shai Hope could not possibly emulate their first-innings brilliance, when they added 246. But they could, this time settling for 144. Brathwaite's virtues were familiar, though it was something of a surprise that he could bat so fluently. Hope was a revelation. His talent had long been recognised in the Caribbean, but he had passed 50 just once in 11 Tests. At Headingley, he became the first to score two centuries in a first-class match there - astonishing, given that it was hosting its 534th. This was surely Hope's landmark Test, the one in which he realised he could prevail at the highest level. Alongside elegant orthodoxy, he seemed to possess that extra millisecond to play his shots. He remained composed even when an epic victory was on the horizon, and in its immediate aftermath. Sky TV's Ian Ward asked him about his new Headingley record. "I didn't know that," Hope said in a deep Bajan drawl. "But thanks for passing on the good news." West Indies had discovered a batsman capable of excelling for the next decade.
The expected order was restored at Lord's, which for the first time hosted a Test starting in September. The sun which had graced Leeds disappeared for two days, and under grey skies the ball darted about. England won by nine wickets in a low-scoring match. Jimmy Anderson registered his 500th Test wicket, speeding to career-best figures of seven for 42 in the second innings of his 129th appearance, to cap a superb summer. In the first innings, Stokes ad also achieved his best Test figures - six for 22 - as he swung the ball extravagantly. For a few days, English fans could happily ponder: "How can the Aussies possibly cope with this pair if it starts swinging Down Under?"
The batting line-up provoked rather more nervous queries, even after England had retained the Wisden Trophy. Mark Stoneman and Tom Westley guided them to victory at Lord's, but only Stoneman was retained for the Ashes. He had timed his run into the Test team as deftly as Mo Farah in his pomp. Dawid Malan also survived, on the back of two tentative half-centuries at No. 5. By contrast, Westley had been in the team just long enough to reveal his limitations. In his stead, the selectors lurched back to Gary Ballance and James Vince. After Lord's, it was suggested that, if England could take on Australia in an eight-a-side-contest, they would be favourites. After the episode in Bristol, this was amended - to seven-a-side.
For West Indies, the performance of Hope and Brathwaite offered a glimmer for the future, though their only other batsman to score runs of any significance was the skittish Jermaine Blackwood. Kemar Roach and Gabriel - one through guile, the other through brute force - delivered impressive spells, but there was still much rebuilding to do. Jason Holder was dignified, if not tactically astute, in the exacting role of captaining a team whose fragility was obvious, but who at least seemed eager to improve under the no-nonsense guidance of their latest coach, the (very) Australian Stuart Law.
After defeat in the T20 match in Durham, played in conditions so chilly and slippery that at one point captain Carlos Brathwaite wanted to take his players off the field, England emphatically won the ODIs. The only close game came at The Oval, where Moeen Ali and Jos Buttler inched England ahead on DLS before the rain came. Earlier in the day, Evin Lewis, a 25-year-old left-hander from Trinidad, hit a coruscating 176 before retiring hurt. Such was the precision of his strokeplay, one wondered whether he might be effective against a red ball as well.
Lewis partnered Chris Gayle, who played his first ODIs since the 2015 World Cup and delivered one major innings and a couple of cameos, all sprinkled with trademark sixes and the odd quick single to long-on. Even though, at nearly 38, his mobility had diminished, Gayle provided terrific entertainment, and his presence at least hinted that some sort of amnesty was in operation between the West Indian board and their players. The return of Marlon Samuels was less successful: he made a few runs slowly, and was a liability in the field.
Many of England's runs were scored by their openers, although Ali's incandescent 53-ball century at Bristol came from No. 7. Initially, Jonny Bairstow was preferred to Jason Roy, and seized his chance with two centuries notable for fluent strokeplay and swift running. But Roy replaced Hales after Bristol, and showed why he should also be a regular, purring to 84 and 96.
Here was a little headache for the England hierarchy when contemplating their best white-ball side. But, at the end of a long international season (too long, in fact), this conundrum was hardly at the forefront of the minds of the management. Instead, they had to fathom a way to cope with the potential absence of Stokes throughout the winter.
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