No shortage of surprises in the West Indies
Posted in England in West Indies 2009
As the players left the field at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium last week, casting disbelieving glances at the sandpit beneath their feet, nobody could have predicted where we would be now.
Few in the ground at the time had sufficiently lucid thoughts to see beyond the unsightly mess caused by an unfit outfield, never mind the abandonment of a Test just 10 balls’ old, and its subsequent rescheduling at the Antigua Recreation Ground.
Yet seven days later we could reflect on one of the most pulsating matches in recent history.
A match which remained alive until more than an hour after the scheduled close of play on the final day.
A match which ended with England’s weary bowlers drawing deep into their mental and physical reserves, straining every sinew to claim the wicket that would have earned them a series-levelling victory.
A match which, ultimately, will be remembered for the last-wicket stand between Daren Powell and Fidel Edwards, who kept England at bay for 10 excruciating overs before bad light bailed them out.
‘Heroic’ is an overused word in modern sports journalism - much like ‘great’, ‘must-win’ and countless others we could mention - but there were numerous performances before and during the third Test that fully deserve to be accompanied by such an adjective.
How else would you describe the efforts of the groundstaff and the army of helpers who managed to stage a Test at the Rec at less than 48 hours’ notice?
What better way to explain Andrew Strauss’ 169, an innings from a man who had seen his side bowled out for a paltry 51 in the previous Test, his first since being appointed captain?
How about the manner in which Graeme Swann led the England attack to the brink of victory in only his third Test, claiming a maiden five-wicket haul and eight victims in the match on a pitch as uncooperative as a nightclub bouncer?
As for Andrew Flintoff’s insistence on playing - and bowling - with huge heart through obvious and considerable pain as England strove for victory on the fifth day, only one description will suffice.
The partnership of Powell and Edwards, however, was equally heroic, matching the commitment, determination and application shown by Ramnaresh Sarwan, Shivnarine Chanderpaul and the remainder of the West Indies middle and lower order.
As much as the England fan in me was willing Swann or Flintoff to find a way to prise Powell or Edwards from the crease during those final fraught overs, I could not help but take immense pleasure from their doughty rearguard.
Having spent my early years in senior cricket playing for a side for whom defeat was the norm, I am all too familiar with the scenario of blocking out for a draw.
And, while 4th XI club cricket as a 13-year-old may not bear much comparison to fighting to save a Test in the Caribbean, the memories – not all of which were painful, I must confess – came flooding back as Powell lunged forward with a dead bat, or Edwards squeezed a thick inside edge between a throng of close catchers.
The West Indies’ celebrations after they accepted the offer of bad light smacked of relief, and as Powell and Edwards cavorted on the field, and their team-mates punched the air on the dressing room balcony, the image of Australia players doing likewise after they clung on to draw the third Test at Old Trafford in 2005 sprung to mind.
Michael Vaughan and company claimed they grew great strength from seeing the Australians treat a draw in such fashion, and it is inconceivable that Strauss will not mention the jubilant scenes and beaming smiles among the Windies camp in his pep talk ahead of the fourth Test in Barbados.
Strauss has drawn criticism for not enforcing the follow-on at the Rec; employing a nightwatchman in the second innings; England failing to score quickly enough as they sought to extend their lead; and not declaring sooner on the fourth day.
But to chastise a captain who made his most fluent Test century in the most trying of circumstances, whose side were kept waiting by rain on the final morning, and who were just one faint edge away from victory is harsh even by English standards.
Whether that will be of much comfort to Strauss only he will know, for the fact – however unpalatable – remains that England head to Barbados one down with two to play.
Judging by the events of the past few days, it would be foolish to even hazard a guess at what might happen.