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Match Analysis

Jack Leach the major positive as England find lessons in Antiguan adversity

Five days of hard graft in Antigua reveal the character of the combatants

Cameron Ponsonby
12-Mar-2022
Jack Leach made two breakthroughs before tea, West Indies vs England, 1st Test, Antigua, 5th day, March 12, 2022

Jack Leach had arguable his best game for England but went under-rewarded  •  Getty Images

It's funny how things are framed. Going into this Test match, England made six changes (one enforced) from their previous XI and it was evidence of a complete reset. On the other hand, West Indies made four and captain Kraigg Brathwaite commented ahead of the game that "we've had these guys together for quite a long period, so it's pretty much the same feeling in the camp".
England's Operation Red-Ball Reset has been viewed with a healthy pinch of cynicism by many and not without justification. Why are we prioritising learning over winning? This is Test cricket not Duolingo.
But there is cause for riposte. England were/are in a rut and needed to manufacture a way to create the illusion of a new beginning; they have said themselves the reset is as much mental as anything else. This plays into a phenomenon known as the Fresh Start Effect, which argues that we measure our lives through a series of arbitrary benchmarks: our childhood home, this job, or that relationship. And each time something changes, it makes it that little bit easier for us to reinvent ourselves a touch and adopt new behaviours.
And so we set new year's resolutions, start new diets on a Monday, and leave 1,177 Test wickets at home. It's far from a guarantee of success, and can smack of desperation, but it's a start. Digging your own starting blocks into the sand.
"I'm really proud of the team," Joe Root, England's captain, said. "I thought the attitude throughout the whole week was just fantastic. We threw everything into the game and, to be in the position we were [at 48 for 4] after that first hour, to respond as we have done since it's been a really pleasing performance on what turned out to be a very docile wicket, which didn't offer a huge amount for anyone. But the way we applied ourselves and went about it was really pleasing and very encouraging going into the rest of the series."
So what have England learnt from the first Test?
The major positive was Jack Leach, as he put in one of his best performances in an England shirt. The major doubt surrounding Leach beforehand was his ability to play the holding role for England when part of a four-man attack, a role he had yet to perform. But in 43 first-innings overs he went at just 1.8 rpo before performing the attacking role we know he can in the fourth innings. He may have only taken five wickets in the match but, were it not for a number of umpire's-call decisions going against him - and one notable non-review against Jason Holder - he could well have spun England to victory.
Leach has been handed more responsibility on this tour as part of a wider move by the England management to share around duties, and emphasise the new feeling of seniority among some of the more familiar faces. He's been asked to give a team-talk; Zak Crawley gave the speech congratulating Jonny Bairstow on his century, and Bairstow himself presented his former Yorkshire team-mate Alex Lees with his cap. This is a changing room genuinely attempting to turn a page and start a new chapter.
Centuries from Bairstow, Crawley and Joe Root were another major positive. The pitch may have been flat, but the runs had to be scored. And given the frailties of this England batting line-up, which were duly exposed on the opening morning, those are positives worth taking.
"It'll definitely do a lot of the guys a lot of good," Root said. "Leach was incredible throughout the whole game, there were runs at the top of the order for Zak [Crawley], Jonny [Bairstow]'s innings and some other contributions around him as well under pressure, and the way Dan [Lawrence] played today was brilliant. It gave us the opportunity to get that declaration a little bit sooner and really give us a sniff of trying to get a few extra overs out there.
However, the learnings weren't all positive. England had the use of three new balls across two innings in this Test, and failed to pick up a single wicket. The first ten overs of West Indies' innings were particularly bad, as Chris Woakes and Craig Overton didn't simply fail to threaten but were positively charitable. West Indies' hadn't had a fifty-run opening partnership since the last time England toured in 2019, but in Antigua they went two from two.
"It's very difficult for the seamers but they held things together very well under great pressure in that first innings," Root added. "The guys worked extremely hard and Ben [Stokes] is somewhere near his best again, which is always very exciting and very promising. So I think there's a lot of good things to take into next week.
"You look at this wicket and it wasn't really a new-ball wicket," Root added, insisting that the first hour of the match, in which West Indies had ripped out four prime wickets, was the exception to the rule. "It assisted the seamers more with reverse-swing so it'll be a completely different scenario when we get down to Barbados."
Fewer lessons were learned for West Indies, but that's because their players, for the most part, performed with the character - good and bad - for which they are already known. Exciting young seamer Jayden Seales was exciting; skilful Kemar Roach bowled with skill. The excellent Jason Holder was excellent, their premier batters Brathwaite and Nkrumah Bonner scored the bulk of their runs, and their wildcards, John Campbell and Jermaine Blackwood, performed as erratically as you'd expect, with both men falling to wild hacks on the final day when trying to save the game.
The major question mark for West Indies will be that of their spinner Veerasammy Permaul, who went wicketless across the match and was played with ease in the second innings as England cashed in at over five runs an over. Though he performed well in Sri Lanka recently, Permaul hadn't played a home Test since 2015, and may find himself under renewed pressure from Rakheem Cornwall for the remainder of the series. Among his many attributes, Cornwall offers more with the bat too.
"England have come here to play a hard-fought series, and they've shown that they're not going to lie down and give us the series," Phil Simmons, West Indies' head coach, said. "It was good to see the fight from them, and we know the other Test matches are going to be just as hard."

Cameron Ponsonby is a freelance cricket writer in London. @cameronponsonby