<
>

Fire in the belly ignites on time for England

Alastair Cook celebrates the moment of victory Getty Images

It is generally the nature of England results that, when they win they were perceived to be playing hopeless opposition and when they lose they are perceived to be even more hopeless. It is true that they will face tougher challenges this year than West Indies, tougher opposition whose batsmen are less reckless, whose bowlers are given some help from the pitches and whose best players are all keen and available for selection.

But to win any match in these conditions, to overcome the docility of the pitch in a series where the pitches on display overall have been poor, is a tremendous effort.

To score at the pace managed by Joe Root, easily the most impressive batsman in the match, and to coax any life from the surface as James Anderson did on day five is admirable. For an entire team to sustain their effort over five days in this heat and go through periods when there was little encouragement suggests a strong and positive spirit within the dressing room. It reflects well on Alastair Cook and Peter Moores.

England have now won four Tests out of five. They have renewed their side with the addition of four or five fresh faces and they appear to have unearthed a couple of outstanding young players. They remain outsiders to win back the Ashes, but they are at least progressing. England lost the last Test series they played in the Caribbean and before this match Root had never tasted Test victory outside England. This was England's first overseas success since Kolkata in late 2012.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of this new-look team is the emergence of fresh talent. With twin half-centuries in this match, Gary Ballance became the third quickest England player, in terms of innings, to 1,000 Test runs. Only Sir Len Hutton (16 innings) and Herbert Sutcliffe (12) managed it more quickly than Ballance's 17 innings. Ballance is now ninth on the all-time list from all nations.

That follows on the heels of Root becoming the second youngest England player to 2,000 runs. If Root makes a fifty in the first innings at Barbados, he will have made seven fifty-plus scores in succession. Nobody from any nation has ever made eight.

While there is a grain of truth in the somewhat curmudgeonly suggestion that England have played some modest opposition on flat tracks in the last year, Root and Ballance, whose record includes a debut against Australia, are not the first to encounter such circumstances and England are not such a good side that any success can be taken for granted. Their careers will, no doubt, be defined by their results against Australia in particular but the confidence they take from these performances can only be of benefit. It was a point made by a relaxed Cook after the game.

"I genuinely believe they're going to take England batting to a new level over the next 10 years or so," he said. "I haven't seen young players bat like that for England in terms of the way they go about their business and how good they are."

The return to form of Cook is almost as encouraging. Not only did he make half centuries in each innings here, only the second time he has managed such a feat since the Colombo Test of April 2012, but he looked more fluent in attack and more secure in defence for some time. He has now made half-centuries in five of his last eight Test innings and looks somewhere near his best.

"It's nice to be contributing," he said. "But until I get that three figure score it'll still be there, no doubt about. But you'd take 130-odd runs in a game for once out in an England win, no doubt."

But on the fifth day the match was shaped by Anderson's brilliance with the second new ball and in the field. To claim three wickets for one run in any spell is impressive. To do so on a dead pitch and for those wickets to represent the cream of West Indies batting is exceptional. Anderson had been anonymous for much of this match. While he produced one wonderful delivery on the first morning, in general he was gentle of pace and undemanding of length.

Shaken out of his slumber by some frank comments from Peter Moores and his side's reliance upon him, Anderson produced a vintage spell. He started by bouncing out Kraigg Brathwaite, an opening batsman with a century to his name, despite the slow pitch before claiming Shiv Chanderpaul's outside edge with one angled across him that demanded a stroke. While Marlon Samuels might have left the delivery he edged, Anderson had earned the wicket through mixing his inswing and his outswing in previous overs. Samuels had no idea which way the ball was going.

There was more to come. The catch that accounted for Jermaine Blackwood, at full stretch and travelling fast high above Anderson's head, was exceptional and the run-out of Jason Holder with a bullet-like direct hit from mid-off better still.

Just as it seemed Anderson might be coming to the end of the road as an international player, he produced a classic performance. It seems churlish in the light of such brilliance to question where such incisiveness was earlier in the match. In both innings, he was far better with the second new ball than the first and it seems inevitable that with a view to extending his Test career, the selectors will decide his international limited-overs career is now over. Even below his best, England have no one with the skills to replace him.

Some worries remain. Jonathan Trott suffered his third failure in four innings and has not convinced in the new role of opener. England will have to decide whether to stick or twist ahead of the Barbados Test but Adam Lyth looks ready.

Now is not the time to worry about that. England have earned the couple of days off they will have after arriving in Barbados on Sunday afternoon. Test victories overseas are scarce in this day and age. To have achieved one on a pitch designed to nullify them is an achievement that should not be underestimated. They are not the finished package, they are not about to defeat South Africa or Australia, but from the rubble of the Sydney Test just over a year ago, they have made excellent progress.