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Match Analysis

England's rookies learn the lessons of a hard day in the dirt

Unforgiving deck, allied to a notable lack of luck, as West Indies grind out their response

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
Ben Stokes and Matt Fisher help to shift the sightscreen, West Indies vs England, 2nd Test, Kensington Oval, Barbados, 3rd day, March 18, 2022

Ben Stokes and Matt Fisher help to shift the sightscreen  •  Getty Images

If ever he takes a break from working on his handicap, or from dreaming of Nottingham Forest glory against Liverpool this weekend, Stuart Broad might well tune into the events in Barbados with a shudder of recognition, and a moment of solidarity for the two young guns who've been undergoing gruelling auditions in his absence this week.
In the entirety of his (still unresolved) 152-Test career, Broad surely never endured a tougher five days than in his very first Test, at Colombo in 2007. On a soullessly dead deck, one that Muthiah Muralidaran rightly predicted was only going to get slower and slower as the game went on, Broad bowled 36 overs with only the maiden scalp of Chaminda Vaas to show for his back-breaking efforts, before being spirited out of the side in Galle the following week by an England management terrified that they might wreck him before he had begun.
Broad, of course, would soon prove to be more robust than his willowy frame would imply. But he would never bowl more overs in a single innings again - not even on another of England's visits to Barbados in 2009, when Ramnaresh Sarwan's 291 set up a contest with even less ebb and flow than the one currently unfolding. Either way, that debut ordeal proved to be an invaluable lesson in the often glamour-free realities of Test-match cricket, one that Matt Fisher and Saqib Mahmood might yet come to reflect on with gratitude as their own England careers take shape.
For both of England's rookies will bowl worse in the future for greater reward than this joyless surface was willing to surrender. Fisher did at least get to bank the euphoria of that maiden Test wicket on Thursday evening, as John Campbell nicked off to the second ball of his career, although he will be hoping it won't be quite as misleading a moment as that of India's Nilesh Kulkarni. On Kulkarni's Test debut, at Colombo in 1997, he had Marvan Atapattu caught behind with his very first ball, only to toil unrewarded for his next 69.5 overs, as Sri Lanka racked up a preposterous 952 for 6 declared.
Right now, however, Mahmood might accept that sort of Faustian pact after becoming yet another victim of Test cricket's cruellest new buzzkill. Four England debutants had previously been denied their maiden wicket by a belatedly called no-ball - including Ben Stokes at Adelaide in the 2013-14 Ashes - and there was something fittingly futile about Mahmood's moment of horror, 14 overs into his work, when Jermaine Blackwood was nailed by a perfectly dipping yorker - the sort of pin-up dismissal of which Mahmood might have spent the match-eve dreaming, after being named in the side 24 hours in advance.
"No-one wants to write those stories," Jeetan Patel, England's spin coach, said at the close of play. "It's not great for him but I'm sure he'll learn his lesson going forward. It's why he gets picked, why Fisher gets picked, they get the ball to do stuff. Even on docile wickets like this. That's what we're quite excited by, we've got two more bowlers in the armoury."
That yorker wasn't quite Mahmood's best ball of the day - that had come in the final moments before lunch when, with the ball threatening to talk, England's new young purveyor of reverse-swing was summoned as the team's interrogator-in-chief. Within three balls, he was living up to his rich promise as he howled a furious inswinger into Blackwood's planted front boot, jagging it at pace with an aplomb that might have had Waqar Younis nodding his approval. But the toe was outside the line of off stump, and the moment was lost - just as England's other big moment had slid by before Blackwood had even got off the mark, a back-foot lbw appeal from Stokes that would have been overturned had England deigned to review.
"You look at moments, we made two mistakes today," Patel said. "We didn't review an lbw that was probably out, and the no-ball. Make two mistakes a day, we're going all right. We did a lot of good stuff today, hopefully we come back with the same attitude and effort - do that and we'll push for a better result than today."
If Mahmood's were the day's most visceral moments, then Fisher did his part in banging out a performance full of character, and devoid of further luck. In spite of the obduracy of West Indies' fourth-wicket pair, Fisher kept charging in with a natural, angular pace - not unlike a younger version of Broad, in fact, with his height permitting him to probe ever more deeply into the batters' defences, and extract extra kick from the conditions - more, certainly, than the toiling but sadly ineffectual Chris Woakes, whose efforts skidded all too pleasantly on to the bat as he retreated with figures for the series that now read a bruising 55-14-156-1.
By the close of day three, Jack Leach's match figures were taking a similar hit. In Antigua, Leach produced - by common consent - his finest display in an England shirt, and yet he emerged from that contest with just five wickets from 73.4 overs, and the frustration at being unable to unlock the fourth innings on a pitch that gave up the ghost on the final afternoon.
Here, he has toiled for 44 more - economical once again in ceding his runs at a shade over two an over - and yet, after luring Shamarh Brooks in the day's first hour, Leach too found no way through or around an unyielding stand. The Brooks wicket arguably came from his worst ball of the day, a rank long-hop chopped to point, but it had been earned by his most promising, probing passage of play - a spiky spell of loop and bounce, an effort that - at the time - seemed to be presaging some overdue rewards.
But thereafter, Leach retreated into his safe zone - one that you could hardly blame him for seeking out, given how chaotically his past 12 months of Test cricket have panned out. His control remained unrelenting, which is not to be under-estimated, but his reluctance to gamble with his flight and bite was revealing - a hangover, dare one say it, from some merciless treatment from the likes of Rishabh Pant and Travis Head, but also a consequence of England's failure to pick him for vast swathes of the year, including the entirety of the last home summer.
"I think he bowled really well today," Patel insisted. "To be ultra-critical he maybe he got a touch full every now and then. He got the ball past the bat, he beat the inside edge, he created edges. It was one of those days it just didn't go to hand. But the reality is he's pretty shattered up there from the work he's done today. Thirty-four overs of graft after what we did in Antigua, the worm will turn for him. He just has to keep wanting to put those overs in."
But had he had the confidence to throttle back, and trust the deck to deliver, who knows what Leach might have extracted from the conditions. Instead, it was his golden-armed understudy Dan Lawrence who made the overdue breakthough with the seventh ball of his evening spell - a massive pulled-pin of an offbreak, tossed high above the eyeline and ripping into Blackwood's knee-roll to send him on his way for 102.
"What impresses me about Dan is that he gets so much overspin, and on wickets like this, where you get funny bounce and you need to hit the seam to get it to react, he does that very well," Patel said. "Everyone can see his action is a bit different, but what he does with the ball is different from other guys as well."
Either way, that late incision gives England just a glimmer of an opening with the nightwatchman, Alzarri Joseph, looking rather less of a permanent presence than his captain Kraigg Brathwaite has so far proved to be.
"With two hot days there's a lot to be had, third session day five," Patel said. "It wasn't our day - full credit to them, they're allowed to play well. But there's a huge opportunity to take this game forward."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket