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February 15, 2009
Despite the early impressions on this tour, it would seem that Strauss is a lucky captain after all. His innings was not entirely chanceless - he survived a run-out chance on 9, a tight lbw appeal on 32, and a dropped catch at slip on 47 - but in between whiles he produced a series of perfect drives, cuts, pulls and clips to pick off 24 fours and a six in a 278-ball stay. The most important thing he did all day, however, was call incorrectly at the toss. Everyone in Antigua had been duped by the apparent "spiciness" of the wicket - it was lively enough during England's nets sessions for Steve Harmison to earn a recall at the expense of Ryan Sidebottom - and Chris Gayle bowled first, as he had done at North Sound, eager to inflict further damage after England's 51 all out in Jamaica.
Three years of neglect were believed to have evened up the contest between bat and ball at the ARG, but it soon became apparent that appearances were deceptive. Ever since the first of Brian Lara's world records in 1994, this ground has been the definitive bowler's graveyard, and despite a handful of shooters that pitched on the football centre circle that runs straight through the middle of the wicket, the most notable uneven bounce was to be found on the stud-mangled outfield. Gayle, in truth, should have known better - he made his highest Test score of 317 on this ground in 2005, and by the time he had brought his gentle offspin into the game in a rain-shortened first session, he was visibly regretting his decision.
Strauss on the other hand, had no qualms at all. He endured a cagey start, which included an awkward moment on 13 when he was pinned on the shoulder by a Daren Powell bouncer which may or may not have brushed his glove (without the referrals, we never shall know …), but he soon slotted confidently into his best and most compact gameplan. He had one carefree moment when he danced down the pitch to deposit Sulieman Benn into the stands at long-off, but for the most part he played a perfect percentage innings, particularly when driving straight down the ground. He pulled Daren Powell powerfully through midwicket to move to 99 before clipping the next ball through square leg for a richly celebrated landmark, then 23 overs later, dinked the part-time medium-pace of Brendan Nash off his hip as he passed 150 for only the second time in his 58-match career.
Nash's introduction was a measure of West Indies' impotence in the conditions. He bowled seven overs in all, diligently ploughing a defensive line a yard outside off stump to stymie England's run flow, and all three of the wickets that fell in the day were due, in no small part, to batsman error. Alastair Cook, who had fallen between 50 and 76 on eight separate occasions since his last century at Galle in December 2007, was the first to go. He once again failed to surmount a clear mental hurdle, throwing away a solid start by edging Gayle low to slip for 52.
Up until that point, Cook had slipstreamed his captain in an excellent second-fiddle performance. He took a while to settle as he once again showed some unease outside off stump, but was fed a series of leg-stump half-volleys by Fidel Edwards to get him in the mood. His best shot was a crunching pull through midwicket as Jerome Taylor dropped short, and he later clattered Edwards superbly in front of point as well. He more than played his part in an opening stand of 123, but just when it seemed he was set to end his hoodoo, he chopped too hard at a wide one from Gayle, and was scooped superbly by Devon Smith, millimetres from the turf.
Cook's dismissal did at least have one benefit for the team. It ended the agonising wait that Owais Shah has endured between Test opportunities. This is only his third proper Test cap, and his first (barring the North Sound debacle) since the early summer of 2007, a match in which he wasted his opportunity with two tentative innings, and he has been waiting ever since for Ian Bell to run out of chances. Shah's bursting enthusiasm was plain to see when he pummelled his first ball, from Gayle, fiercely through the covers for four, and by tea he was well settled on 33 not out, with England sitting very pretty on 206 for 1.
England had clearly been plotting during the break, because they resumed afterwards with malice aforethough. Shah belted the third ball of the resumption, from Benn, clean over the bowler's head for six, then drove the next delivery straight along the turf for a scorching four. It was a clear assault on Benn, whose eight economical wickets made him the unofficial man of the match at Sabina Park, and Benn's day finished limply, in the literal sense, when he left the field with a leg injury 15 minutes before the close. Shah brought up his fifty, his second in Test cricket, with a measured pull through midwicket off Edwards, but before he could capitalise on his start, he was gone, crassly run out for 57 as he hurtled for a blind single and was sent back as Taylor whipped off the bails in his followthrough.
Strauss, however, treated those rare comings and goings with utter insouciance. By the time he fell, he was in such fine touch that he even managed to dominate his stand with his former captain, Kevin Pietersen, who entered the fray with the new ball due, but ended up facing just 12 deliveries of extra pace as Gayle opted to keep him quiet with the old ball instead. West Indies might have wished in hindsight they'd taken the gamble sooner. One vicious ball from Edwards burst out of the lengthening shadows and straight into Pietersen's bicep as he completely lost sight of the delivery, and then, with one ball of the minimum 90 overs remaining, Strauss was also suckered by the extra zip, as he climbed into another pull shot but top-edged a simple return chance to a grateful and gleeful Edwards.
As Strauss departed, head bowed but spirit still high, he saluted all corners of a ground that had been brought back to life with a vengeance. His excellence aside, the real story of the day was that there was a match at all. The recriminations from Friday's debacle at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium in North Sound will resound for weeks to come, but for now, out of Antigua's darkest hour comes a day to savour. The decrepit, yet magnificent ARG had been rushed out of its mothballs, spruced up in a frantic 48-hour operation, and reopened to stage a game that promises, whatever the result, to provide some measure of redemption for a proud island. To judge by the opening exchanges, nothing whatsoever has changed during its three-year exile.
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