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Match Analysis

Kraigg Brathwaite's hard yards cannot disguise futility at heart of Barbados grind

Magnificence of 700-minute epic at odds with the needs of the modern game

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
19-Mar-2022
Matthew Fisher faced some hard yards on debut  •  Getty Images

Matthew Fisher faced some hard yards on debut  •  Getty Images

Shortly before lunch on the fourth day in Barbados, the final whistle blew in Cardiff as Italy ended a 36-match losing streak in a Six Nations thriller against Wales. Moments earlier, Charles Leclerc seized pole position for Sunday's Formula One curtain-raiser in Bahrain, and within minutes of the close of play at the Test, France had sealed the Grand Slam with victory over England in Paris.
Overnight, the Women's World Cup had served up another humdinger with Australia's record run-chase against India; and by the time play finally finished in Bridgetown, another was set to begin, as England and New Zealand prepared to land perhaps the first decisive blows of a fascinatingly poised competition.
Wherever you turned on this Saturday of sporting jeopardy, there were stories taking shape to pique the interest at least, and maybe even stir the soul - not least the remarkable tale of Yaroslava Mahuchikh, the Ukrainian high-jumper who won gold at the Indoor Championships in Belgrade only days after fleeing the Russian invasion.
But then there was the Test match. And frankly it was a miracle if anyone other than the sun-seeking punters packed into the Kensington Oval gave it more than a passing nod of recognition. Randomly, their number included Manchester United's interim manager, Ralf Rangnick, who must surely have ranked among the most baffled guests-of-honour since President Eisenhower watched Pakistan grind out 104 runs in a day against Australia in Karachi in 1959, and reputedly asked his advisers: "when does the action begin?"
None of which is to denigrate West Indies' magnificent defiance, as they stretched their first innings across 187.5 grimly chiselled overs to leave England needing snookers if they are to prise out a series lead. In Kraigg Brathwaite, they had a captain and an opener willing to suck the marrow from the contest, a talent that goes way beyond the physical realm of mere stamina and hand-eye co-ordination, and deep into meta-levels of bluff and existentialism.
For if you don't start to question your life choices at some stage of a 700-minute grind, then you must truly be a zen warrior. Even the mighty Jason Holder - the man who saved the Antigua Test with his final-day lockout - could not prevent his own doubts from creeping into the narrative. It was as if Holder had spent the tea-break sobbing in the toilets, to judge by his world-weary hack at the second ball of the resumption. Either way, it gifted Saqib Mahmood a maiden Test wicket, just when he might have started to believe there was no point to his existence either.
"To come off the field, there was a lot of relief among that bowling group. I can tell you that," Mahmood said, after overcoming the horror of his maiden-wicket no-ball to return the creditable figures of 2 for 58 in 27 overs. "I'm relieved more than anything. I felt like the biggest criminal out here last night, so when I got that one today I had a little check to make sure there were no dramas or anything.
"Some of the boys out there said it was one of the harder ones," he added. "It was like diving in the deep end but I just wanted to make sure I stayed disciplined throughout, by sticking to my plans and trying and do something the whole time."
At these clutch moments of the sport's inherently paranoid existence, you can always rely on some defender of the faith to trot out that tediously parroted line: "That's why they call it a Test match", and yes, it's true, there is something magnificent about the nonsensically quirky stats that can crop up on a day like this. Jack Leach, for instance, bowled 212 balls at Braithwaite alone, the equivalent of more than 35 of the 69.5 overs that he churned out in the course of West Indies' innings - the most by any England bowler since Phil Tufnell at Wellington in 1992.
"I thought he was superb," Brathwaite said of Leach, whose final figures of 3 for 118 were instrumental in holding West Indies to a run-rate of barely two an over, and included the ball of the match so far to dislodge West Indies' main man. "Probably out of those balls, I could count how many short balls he bowled, so I was defending on the front foot a lot. Even if he didn't get five wickets, the pressure he created was a superb effort."
Last week was the 145th anniversary of the inaugural Test between England and Australia at Melbourne in 1877, and Brathwaite's efforts were worthy of being framed in sepia: 160 runs from 489 deliveries, with 17 fours and - would it surprise you? - an all-run eight when the ball got lodged in a rabbit hole on the edge of the square.
"It was obviously a long knock," Brathwaite added. "It was time spent out there for the team. Tomorrow is another big day and we're going to have work extremely hard. Scoring runs as an opener is always a great feeling. I'm happy to get a hundred here at home with my family here."
All of which is unquestionably laudable, and who knows, Brathwaite's grind could yet have set up a grandstand finish - much as we almost got in the first Test in Antigua, where England's morning declaration so nearly unlocked the final afternoon. But if Sunday does end up being an exciting fifth day of the Test match, that is not remotely the same as saying this has been an exciting five-day Test. That ship has sailed more emphatically than a cruise liner from Bridgetown harbour.
The ends in Test cricket cannot be allowed to endlessly justify the means, because the sport needs to fall back on more than just its own context for sustenance. It's no longer acceptable to point out that Shivnarine Chanderpaul, say, batted 510 balls for 136 not out against India in 2002, and therefore dirges of this ilk need to be accepted as part of the game's rich tapestry - any more than the snore-draw in Rawalpindi earlier this month deserves a free pass simply because Australia hadn't played a Test in Pakistan for 24 years. However much of a Test-cricket aficionado you might be, you'd have to agree, that spectacle was hardly the way to encourage a rematch any time before 2046.
And it matters also because of the zeitgeist within which Test cricket is trying to stay relevant. Even if you find the ECB's recent obsession with data points and strategy documents infuriating, it's hard to deny they have a point about the number of competing pastimes that are queuing up to cramp the style of the grand old game - and even when it's not the final day of the Six Nations hogging the limelight, cricket's own cannibalistic tendencies cannot go unnoticed either.
Had Mark Wood, for instance, not already gone lame with an elbow problem - the consequence, dare one say it, of too many dead overs in too many one-sided Ashes Tests - he would surely have been busting a gut for the cause on this frighteningly unforgiving pitch … and to what end? Next week, the IPL begins, and had Wood been fit, he would have been raking in a cool £735,000 as Lucknow Super Giants' marquee signing.
Instead, Wood's now worse off in body and pocket, and arguably the only people who have truly benefitted from his endeavours are CWI, whose lifeless surfaces have guaranteed five full days of gate receipts, concessions takings and hospitality windfalls from the thousands of England fans whom Phil Simmons, the home team's coach, wistfully claimed had turned the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium "into Trent Bridge" last week.
But still, there's always the "honour" of playing Test cricket to fall back on when adversity strikes.
"This is the kind of day you play for, when there's nothing going on and it's hard work for bowlers," Mahmood claimed, and as the new boy, it's fair to believe him for now. "You want to be the guy the captain throws the ball to, to break partnerships and take wickets. That's the stuff I get satisfaction from. On green seamers, every seamer feels in the game but on ones like this, I really want to be a guy who can stand up and break a partnership. It's been hard work but that why we play the game."
But it is really? Because it is hard to believe that spectacles such as the ones currently panning out are why anyone would still watch the game.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket