England's retention of the Wisden Trophy will, it seems, not be marked by an open-top bus parade. Unless that bus contains a large bronze sculpture representing the concept of Test cricket, which paraded many of its timeless wonders in a gripping three days of juddering narrative that combined brilliance and bloopers in almost equal measure. (And, in the case of Chris Jordan's slip catching, sometimes simultaneously - moving in the wrong direction to turn a sharp but direct chance into a near impossibility, before readjusting, or deadjusting, and catching it anyway, with hand speed that might baffle even Floyd Mayweather.)
West Indies have had many false dawns during their years of decline, but this dawn feels at least considerably less false than previous versions, some of which have transpired to be not so much a dawn as a small flicker of torchlight that lasted just long enough to turn off the alarm clock, take some sleeping pills, and bed back down for an extended lie-in. Time will tell. It was a glorious win, sealed by a partnership of control, flair and skill against an attack whose shortcomings were luminously exposed in both of their fourth innings in the series.
Darren Bravo and Jermaine Blackwood added 108 in 32 overs, in a match in which there had been only two other stands of more than 45 (both on the first day), and after the previous 29 wickets had fallen for 416, giving an average partnership expectancy of 14 off 27 balls. This made the Bravo-Blackwood stand equivalent to a 950-run partnership in the 2009 Barbados Test between these sides, a game so pointlessly dull that the mere scorecard is now used an a general anaesthetic by many professional vets.
England have learned much from this series. Unfortunately not all of it has been what they wanted or needed to learn, and, in doing so, they have not learned enough of what they could really have done with learning.
Their bowling seems more dependent on James Anderson than ever, and the fragility of their batting in Barbados, against an unproven attack whose highest-ranked bowler was 49th-placed Jerome Taylor, does not bode well as they prepare to face New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, who among them have seven of the top ten. England's contingent of allrounders have all moved, at best, sideways (unlike too much of their bowling), and individual or collective failures against the Kiwis could leave giant flashing question marks hovering over more than half of the side.
All in all, then, it has not been quite the time-buying consolidation of last summer's win over India that appeared to be in the pipeline when Anderson sliced through West Indies' top order on the second day of the final Test. England contrived not to win from what might reasonably be considered a "winning position" for the sixth time in their last 12 Tests (or arguably seventh, if you include the Trent Bridge Test against India last summer, when they had India six down and 145 ahead with 77 overs left on the final day), dating back to Melbourne in December 2013. More on this in next week's blog.
On the positive side, England have been in winning positions in 10 (or arguably 11) of those 12 Tests. On the negative side, they have won four and lost five of their last 12 Tests, and have in the process lost at home to Sri Lanka, who had not won a series outside Asia against anyone other than Zimbabwe since 1995, and failed to beat a West Indies team that had been accused of "mediocrity" not only by Colin Graves, the incoming ECB chairman, but also by their own recent statistics.
This dawn feels at least considerably less false than West Indies' previous versions, some of which were not so much a dawn as a small flicker of torchlight that lasted just long enough to turn off the alarm clock and bed back down for an extended lie-in
Mediocrity, however, can come and go with surprising alacrity, for both individuals and teams. At the beginning of day two in Barbados, when Jerome Taylor took the newish ball after a wicketless first day in which he had allowed England's batsmen to leave too many deliveries, he had taken 26 wickets at an average of 37 since his recall in June 2014, after almost five years away from the Test arena. Since his certifiably unmediocre 5 for 11 against England in Jamaica in 2009, he had taken 32 wickets at 44 in 15 Tests plus Barbados day one. His overall Test record was 108 wickets at almost 36. Mediocre figures. By Test standards, a bowler capable of mediocrity. But not, as England had seen in 2009, and sporadically in the first Test, a mediocre bowler.
Taylor then took 3 for 3 to clean up England's tail, and followed with 3 for 33 in the second innings. He had transformed the match, the series, the tone of Geoffrey Boycott's voice, and the spiciness of language on internet message boards, taking 6 for 36 in 14.4 overs either side of West Indies' first innings. Not mediocre.
Between April 2006 and November 2013, New Zealand won two out of 24 Test series, both victories being against Bangladesh. Against top-eight sides, they had drawn six and lost 15 series (albeit with some strong signs of recent improvement, particularly in drawn series in Australia and Sri Lanka). Since December 2013, in five series, the Kiwis have beaten West Indies (home and away), India and Sri Lanka, and drawn against Pakistan in the UAE, where both Australia and England had recently lost. Kane Williamson averaged 34 until November 2013; he averages 73 since then. Tim Southee had 45 wickets at 44 in 18 Tests up to August 2012; he has taken 91 at 24 in 21 Tests since then.
England's drawn series in New Zealand two years ago was, on the one hand, another failure to defeat a team with a mediocre record, and on the other, a reasonable (if extremely fortuitous) result against a team leaving its mediocrity behind it, on the cusp of a significant breakthrough.
Colin Graves' infamous claim of West Indian mediocrity was not without foundation. Before this series, they had recorded eight Test wins over other top-eight nations in 90 attempts, dating back to 2003; out of the 30 series they had played against the other top-eight teams in that time, they won two (against England six years ago, and New Zealand in 2012), drawn five, and lost 23.
The problem about Graves' comments was not what he said (although he could more safely have claimed that the West Indies "had been a mediocre side", rather than that they would "have a mediocre side") (if he had wanted to cover his back) (which he obviously did not). Most pundits made similar claims, as did most statistics dating back a decade and a half.
The problems were:
(a) the way that he said it;
(b) the fact that he said it, given his impending position in the ECB;
(c) more specifically, the fact that he said it (i) out loud, and (ii) in public; and
(d) the fact that England were emerging from successive trips to the Southern Hemisphere in which even the sunken plateau of mediocrity remained a distant, almost Himalayan pipe dream.
Some sundry stats:
1. Moeen Ali became the fourth England player to be run out twice in a three Test series. Given that he missed the first Test, this was an impressive achievement. The previous men to suffer this inept indignity were John Jameson, who managed to get himself run out in three successive innings against India in 1971, an impressive effort in anyone's book; Bob Taylor in New Zealand in 1977-78; and Bob Taylor again, again in New Zealand, in 1983-84. Taylor was run out four times in nine innings in New Zealand, and only once in his 74 Test innings elsewhere on the planet. Conclusion: Bob Taylor's judgement of time and distance was discombobulated by his astonishment about the fact that New Zealand's only native land mammals are three species of bat.
2. West Indies became only the ninth team in Test history to win a Test after beginning their first innings by losing all of their top four for single-figure scores.
3. Barbados was the third time in six and a half years that England have marched out to bat in the third innings of a Test with a lead of more than 50, and proceeded to lose (after Chennai in 2008-09, and Melbourne in 2013-14). Previously they had done so only once since 1906 (at The Oval, against India, and in particular against Bhagwath Chandrasekhar, in 1971). More on this in next week's blog.
4. Ian Bell became the first batsman to bag two pairs when batting at No. 4 in both innings, after doing so at The Oval in 2005 against Australia. The only other man to be out for two noughts batting at four in a Barbados Test was the less than legendary non-batsman Pedro Collins, who, in the epic Brian Lara-inspired one-wicket West Indies win against the Baggy Greens in March 1999, was twice sent in as nightwatchman. Collins, known more for his left-arm swing than his deeply incompetent batting, which brought him a first-class highest score of 25 in a 16-year career, strode to the crease to shore things up with 8.4 overs remaining on day two, and again with 7.3 overs left on day four. He lasted one ball and six balls respectively. He was never employed as a No. 4 Test batsman again.
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on BBC Radio 4, and a writer