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Much to admire about Ben Stokes' captaincy of England

For a variety of reasons - not least that West Indies played very well - his debut as skipper ended in defeat

George Dobell
George Dobell
It will surprise nobody that Ben Stokes was bowling at the end. With a miracle required and his bowling colleagues spent, Stokes was the man who took the responsibility. It was a similar story in Leeds and Colombo and Cape Town.
This time it didn't work out. For a variety of reasons - not least that West Indies played very well - his captaincy debut ended in defeat.
Because of that it's likely that Stokes' brief reign as England's Test captain may not be remembered favourably. People will look at the major decisions he made before the start of the game - notably the omission of Stuart Broad and resolving to bat first - and conclude he was simply incorrect.
But the truth isn't that simple. There was actually much to admire in Stokes' captaincy. It wasn't just that he top-scored for England in the first innings and the match or that he took most wickets for them in the first innings. It was that he was prepared to take brave decisions, he was prepared to lead from the front and he clearly had the unstinting support of his team. Judging purely by results is simplistic; Stokes looked a very good captain.
Firstly that decision at the toss. It is true the pitch - which was effectively only used for four days - probably didn't deteriorate as much as England hoped it would. And it is true England ended up bowling in the nicest weather of the game.
But it is also true the bounce became more variable. And it is true there was ever more assistance for the spin of Dom Bess. Perhaps, had England managed another 50 or so runs across their two innings - and they really should have done - it is a decision that would have been fully vindicated. It certainly wasn't an unreasonable decision.
Stokes insisted he had "no regrets" about leaving out Broad, too. And that's fair. For while Broad may well have been a useful addition to the attack in West Indies' first innings, there is every chance he would have looked pretty impotent in their second. He has, remember, claimed only one five-wicket haul in his last 28 home Tests; it would be a mistake to believe he has suddenly become a destroyer again. Besides, the bowling really wasn't England's issue in this game.
But there was an interesting caveat attached to Stokes' 'no regrets' phrase that hinted at impressive depths of empathy with his teammates.
"I stand by my decision because if I didn't, what message would that send to the guys I did pick?" Stokes said. And he's right: if he were to talk about how much his team missed Broad, it would only lead to Mark Wood and Jofra Archer feeling they were being blamed for the defeat. Archer, in particular, bowled very well in the second innings. Wood bowled better than his figures suggest. Their selections weren't necessarily wrong; they just didn't fully work out.
The episode revealed aspects of Stokes' character we don't always get to see, too. So impressive were his communication skills, he even won praise from Broad for the manner in which his omission was handled.
"He has been exceptional," Broad wrote in his Mail on Sunday column. "He knocked on my hotel room door at 9pm on Thursday and asked for a chat. He said: 'This is nothing about cricket. I just wanted to know how you're feeling.' That was a classy touch and the sort of thing that leads teams forward. If there were any doubts from the outside on how he would deal with being a captain, how he has conducted himself with me should dispel them."
"I've got a good relationship with Jofra. He trusts me a lot and that goes beyond the field. I just asked him to leave nothing out there for me and run through a brick wall. And he did it."
Ben Stokes
It's instructive to look at the way Stokes handled Archer, too. There have been times in Archer's brief international career when he has both been over bowled - the Mount Maunganui Test being the nadir of that - and looked a bit unsure what his role was at specific times. Here, after bowling an excellent opening spell which featured a full, probing length and enough lateral movement to trouble all the batsmen, he returned with an older ball to deliver a wonderfully hostile spell.
Again, it didn't work out. But it was a riveting passage of cricket and a reminder that, while he might not be the finished article yet, Archer really could develop into a complete fast bowler.
But the more pertinent point is, Archer knew exactly what was expected of him at all times and, with the clarity in mind, gave his captain everything he had.
"I've got a good relationship with Jofra," Stokes said afterwards. "I think he trusts me a lot and that goes beyond the field. I just asked him to leave nothing out there for me and run through a brick wall. And he did it.
"To have someone like that who can go in and out of different scenarios of how you want him to bowl is great. He's skilful with the new ball and we've seen what he can do with the old one: crank it up."
The point is, these decisions about selection and what to do at the toss aren't necessarily right or wrong. They can be made to look that way by subsequent events but they are generally based on sound logic. It wasn't the decision to bat first or the decision to leave out Broad that cost England.
In the end, it was the smaller details that made the difference. Twice England saw wickets overruled after it transpired their bowlers (Archer and Stokes respectively) had over-stepped. Within a few minutes on the final afternoon, several opportunities to dismiss Blackwood were squandered, notably when Jos Buttler dropped him down the leg side off Stokes on 20. He might also have been caught on 8 and both run-out and caught on 29. Had any of those chances been taken, Stokes' decision at the toss might have been seen to be inspired.
Crucially, Stokes was also was let down by his team's batting. In both innings, England batsmen were guilty of soft dismissals that precipitated collapses (4-39 in the first innings; 5-30 in the second). Very few Tests are won by teams which elect to bat first and post only 204 in their first innings. The decision to persist with Joe Denly (who is averaging 24.14 this year) and Buttler (who is averaging 21.38 in 11 Tests in the last year) is hurting England.
"We'll look back, particularly as a batting unit, and understand that when we get into positions, like we did in the first and second innings, we need to be really ruthless," Stokes said. "We have to understand that when we are on top, we cannot give it back to the opposition. If we had another 60 or 80 runs to play with on the final day, it would have been a different game. We had opportunities to do that in both innings."
Most of all, though, England came up against a side who played very well. At different times in the match, Jason Holder, Shannon Gabriel and Alzarri Joseph bowled beautiful spells. And, at various times, Kraigg Brathwaite, Roston Chase and Shane Dowrich put a price on their wicket that England's batsmen would do well to emulate. In Holder they have an impressive leader of their own. His side have won four of the last six Tests between the sides. This isn't an aberration.
In the grand scheme of things, the bigger issue is that this Test took place. And, with the eyes of the cricket-loving world upon it, we were treated to a slow-burning classic that provided a reminder of the sport's enduring charms. Whether you were supporting England, West Indies or just pleased to see cricket back on your TV, that is something to celebrate. We could have an enthralling series on our hands.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo