Windies secure the great escape
West Indies' last pair of Fidel Edwards and Daren Powell blocked out the final 36 minutes of a magnificent Test match at the Antigua Recreation Ground, to secure the draw that maintained their 1-0 lead in the series, and revived the momentum that had been squandered in a troubled week both on and off the field. Chasing a nominal target of 503, West Indies battened down the hatches and clung on to the close on 370 for 9, with the light fading fast and 10 men piled around the bat as England's spinner, Graeme Swann, teased and probed for an opening that simply refused to materialise.
For Edwards, it was a familiar situation, as he welcomed the ARG back onto the Test rota just as he had seen it off against India three years ago, but for England it was a shattering result - a draw that undoubtedly felt like a defeat, especially after the dominance they had enjoyed on the first two days. Questions will be asked about the timing of England's second-innings declaration - did they dally too long on the fourth afternoon? - but there could be no legislating for a West Indian team performance that was the very epitome of regional pride, coming as it did on a day when the Caribbean was plunged into a Stanford-induced economic gloom.
England's bowlers poured heart and soul into their performance, not least the unconscionably heroic Andrew Flintoff, who limped and grimaced through 12 overs in the day - five in the second session, six more in the third, and then, astoundingly, one final roll of the dice as the sun began to disappear, by which stage every one of his deliveries seemed as though it might be his final act of the tour. On a day when two men, Amjad Khan and Ravi Bopara, were called up to replace him, there seemed no question that he will be flying home for treatment as soon as the results of his scan in Barbados are revealed.
Flintoff bowled like a hero, but the day's conquering partnership was forged by two West Indian veterans. Famously, both Ramnaresh Sarwan and Shivnarine Chanderpaul recorded centuries on this ground in 2003 to help their side chase down a world-record 418 for 7 against Australia, and that indomitable mindset was fully in evidence again. According to overnight newspaper reports, both men are believed to have lost their million-dollar prizemoney from November's 20/20 for 20 after reinvesting with Allen Stanford, but they did not dwell on their misfortunes, as they made like Kipling's gamblers, and set about rebuilding from scratch.
After a rain delay of an hour and 15 minutes, the pair batted through the first 36 overs of the day to give their team a huge confidence boost. Sarwan, who finished with a superb 106, was the more forceful of the pair, and by adopting a positive attitude, even in defence, he was able to withstand everything that England could muster. After resuming on 47 not out, he was compact and controlled at the crease, and determined not to give his innings away, as he had done with a wild slog on 94 in the first innings. Sure enough, he ground through the nineties, resisting temptation, until James Anderson, armed with the new ball, offered him enough width outside off stump to nudge the delivery through the gap at third man and cue the celebrations.
Chanderpaul, meanwhile, dropped anchor as only he can. He added just 22 runs in the morning session, and was even more frugal with his strokeplay after lunch, when he dug in on 42 not out for 34 consecutive deliveries. With the pitch offering little, England's bowlers plugged away responsibly on a good line and length, not least Steve Harmison, who seemed fully recovered from the bout of sickness that had marred his performance in the first innings. Eventually Swann offered a leg-stump full-toss that Chanderpaul whisked gratefully through square leg to reach his first fifty of the series.
But for all their diligence, the real challenge for West Indies' overnight pairing was to survive the new ball, which became available midway through the second session. They were unable to do so. Broad, who has grown in stature (and arguably pace) on this tour, burst through Sarwan's defences with a brilliant fast straight delivery that kept just low enough to demolish the off stump, and then, after Chanderpaul had flapped a bouncer just wide of a diving Harmison at square leg, he came around the wicket and banged a perfect lifter off the edge and into Matt Prior's gloves.
That looked like being the crucial breakthrough. Though Brendan Nash is building a hearty reputation as a new-model Chanderpaul, he has not as yet got the same presence at the crease, and England sensed that they were very much in the ascendancy. Broad dumped Nash on his backside with a wickedly accurate bouncer, before Swann - whose willingness to vary his pace and flight made him a constant threat even on an unresponsive deck - pinned him lbw for 23 with a beauty that went straight on and rapped the front pad plumb in front of middle.
Flintoff by this stage was two overs into a spell that demonstrated England's desperation to get back to winning ways. They had not, after all, won an international of any description since September, and though his hip was giving him such gyp that he spent the break between deliveries down on his haunches, it was clear that he was not prepared to catch a flight back to Blighty without at least contributing to the series-leveller. Alternating between bouncers and yorkers, with a heavy splice-rattling stock ball to keep the batsmen honest, he had a vast shout for lbw against Denesh Ramdin on 9, but there was to be no way through.
Not for Flintoff at any rate. The very over after he had left the field, Anderson popped up with the partnership breaker as Jerome Taylor flicked airily at a leg-stump delivery for Bell to snaffle the opportunity at short midwicket. And Anderson struck again three overs later, when Ramdin, after gritting his teeth for 76 steadfast deliveries, produced the first genuine misjudgment of his innings and chopped a short but straight ball onto his stumps for 21.
By this stage the excitement in the ground was at absolute fever pitch, as the few remaining England fans made their presence felt and the locals sensed a great escape. Sulieman Benn, using his 6'7" frame to fine effect, endured for 34 deliveries, and even played the shot of the day, a perfect pick-up off the legs from Anderson that soared over wide mid-on for six. But Swann troubled him with his impish variations, and after three consecutive lbw appeals, Rudi Koertzen decided that enough was enough, and sent him on his way for 21.
That left West Indies' fortunes in the hands of an improbable pair of saviours, Powell and Edwards. Both men, however, had good memories to fall back on. Powell's were the more recent - his nightwatchman's innings of 22 from 86 balls had arguably been the most responsible performance of West Indies' first effort, and he reprised that same caution, striding determinedly down the pitch to smother Swann's variations, and staying in line to the quicks, especially Harmison, who was full, straight and threatening in a final four-over burst.
Edwards, meanwhile, had seen it all before on this ground. In 2006, he and Corey Collymore had been left to negotiate what, at the time, were believed to have been the final 19 deliveries of the ARG's phenomenal Test history. The remarkable events of this week ensured that was not, after all, the case, and it was fitting that a ground that has provided more than its fair share of draws should produce a game that felt so much like a home victory. In a week when Antigua has needed a lift like never before, cricket once again has offered some succour. Who needs Allen Stanford and Twenty20 cricket anyway? This was the game at its very, very best.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo