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March 6, 2009
The dancing girls in the Trini Posse Stand tried their best, but even they struggled to inject much life into the opening day at the Queen's Park Oval. That may sound strange given that Andrew Strauss scored his third hundred in three games, but this was a largely insipid affair that failed to live up to the intensity that a series-deciding contest deserved.
The mindset of the two teams was abundantly clear the moment the elevens were confirmed. England, encouragingly, took the positive route and named five specialist bowlers including a debut for Danish-born Amjad Khan, but West Indies' selection was the complete opposite as they went in with just three frontline options.
Their situation was muddled when Jerome Taylor failed to prove his fitness, despite Chris Gayle claiming yesterday that he was "100% fit." It seems strange given the worries over Taylor's ankle and hip that there wasn't someone put on standby, especially with the concerns over Daren Powell's form. "We were hopeful he would play, but weren't confident he would last five days," John Dyson, the coach, said.
Then, to weaken the attack further, Sulieman Benn was left out as Lendl Simmons earned his debut to pack the batting. Benn's returns have slipped since the first Test where he took eight wickets, but his omission was symbolic; West Indies, for all their pre-match talk, were playing it safe. In a way they can't be blamed: securing this series would be a huge moment, but if it backfires they have to be prepared for the criticism that will follow. West Indies certainly didn't carry the air of a team confident of holding their advantage.
"We've also got two bowlers who are a bit better than just make-up bowlers," Dyson said as he defended the selections. "The thinking today was that we would go in with an attack that was appropriate to conditions. It's nice to be one-nil up, if we get a chance to win this game we'll try and go two-nil up."
The other factor that condemned the first day to a sluggish affair was the surface. It is now time that any talk of life, or bounce or pace in the days leading upto a Caribbean Test are ignored. They never come true. Early on, deliveries from Fidel Edwards were barely carrying through to Denesh Ramdin and by lunch Gayle had used three part-time bowlers. No one, not even himself, would ever have believed Brendan Nash would bowl 16 overs on the opening day of a Test.
"It's a bit like horses for courses," Dyson said. "If you are going to play on a wicket like Jamaica where there's a wicket that will give bounce and quick turn sure Benn plays. But we don't think this is going to provide quick bounce and turn so we've picked a team we think is appropriate to this wicket."
What was slightly depressing was to see part-timers dominate the day, so early in a game that has a huge bearing on the series, as they sent down 53 of the 90 overs. Ramdin was soon stood up to the stumps and Gayle had packed his off side to stop the scoring. Was he really, in his heart of hearts, trying to take wickets and win the game? It certainly didn't look like it. That the tactic nearly worked with Nash's initial dismissal of Kevin Pietersen (before it was reversed on referral) isn't a defence because when he fell shortly afterwards there was still no great notion of attack. This wasn't compelling Test cricket.
England, at least, picked a team aiming to win. The harsh call was made to ditch Ravi Bopara despite his maiden century in Barbados and gamble on a middle-order that included Matt Prior at six and Stuart Broad at seven. The pitch, however, certainly isn't a surface to ease rapid scoring so England will have to ensure they push forward with purpose.
"You can understand where they're [West Indies] coming from in terms of the results they need from this game," Strauss said. "From our point of view we've selected a positive side and I think it can help us win the game."
Somehow England have to give themselves enough time to extract 20 wickets. The sight of Ryan Hinds getting the odd ball to burst through the top (including the one before Pietersen's dismissal) should have encouraged Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann to get those fingers loose, but even spinners want some bounce in the pitch to help them. "It's a slow attritional wicket, but there are certainly signs of turn there in the evening session and on day one that's a nice situation for us to have," Strauss added.
Gayle has been careful not to criticise the flat surfaces that have dominated this series and from early on his demeanour - not that it's ever easy to pick up much from him - was of a captain with a means-to-an-end in mind. One of the advantages of being the home side is that pitches should be tailored in your favour (or at least not heavily in the visitors' favour) but it seems a shame that this has been so flat so early. Yet it's the end result that will determine how this surface is remembered.