Stumps: West Indies 280-8
Talk of England’s dip in standards yesterday has been rather exaggerated – symptomatic of a theme we’ve discussed here before: unrealistic expectations. Quite simply, we would by now have bowled out the visitors for around 200 had Ian Bell held those catches, but his double failure in the slips tells us nothing about either the England team’s performance levels nor the selection strategy. Cricket players sometimes hold catches, and sometimes they drop them – especially if they’re fielding out of position. Bell’s errors of judgement were in themselves isolated incidents for which you cannot blame the other ten players, most of whom did all that was asked of them during the day’s 98 overs.
On an essentially flawless pitch, we have West Indies eight down for 280, and will probably dismiss them for around 290. Neither of our two best bowlers are playing, and three West Indian batsmen fought hard and skilfully. All in all, that must count as a perfectly satisfactory effort.
Yes, to beat South Africa we need to be ruthless, clinical, and close to the peak of our powers, and we haven’t quite achieved any of those three things in the test summer so far. But we are only going to tie ourselves in knots if as supporters we expect to demolish any opposition from any situation with any combination of players. England’s mission yesterday morning was to win a test match inside three days from a standing start, something even the best sides can’t accomplish without both complicity from the opponents and assistance from the pitch.
Realistically, from an England follower’s point of view, this match is significant only in its function as a kind of X Factor showdown for the three pretenders to England’s third seamer slot. As Simon Cowell might have said, Graham Onions absolutely nailed it. Am I the only one who’d forgotten just how good he is? Amazingly, this is only Onions’s ninth test match, which at the age of 29 seems rather an injustice. From where I was watching, he’s the real deal – Onions just looks like a test bowler, from top to toe. Bustling, prying, probing, and relentlessly accurate, you can’t help but feel the South Africans would prefer not to face him.
I’d welcome your views on Steven Finn. Personally, he reminds me of Steve Harmison at the same stage in his test career. Not in terms of technical bowling style, but more a vague sense that despite his pace, height and potential, Finn’s package does not quite work. There’s a hollowness, perhaps a vacuousness to his bowling – perhaps he just needs to pick a strategy for line and length and stick to it. Much like Broad until a year ago, Finn is too prone to what Michael Vaughan aptly describes as ‘pretty bowling’: it looks nice, but achieves little.
So the question is, Bresnan or Onions? Tough call. I’d argue that Bresnan’s effectiveness is deceptive. He may not look ultra-fast, not entirely consistent, but his strength and dynamism seems to get him more out of the pitch than batsmen expect: he causes surprises.
As for West Indies – it’s often the case that in a struggling batting side one player appears to occupy a parallel universe. For example, Rahul Dravid last summer, or Robin Smith for us in the 1989 Ashes. Marlon Samuels has that distinction in this series, as he’s probably been the best batsman on either side. Not only has his strokeplay been mellifluous, but he seems to have so much more time to play than any of his cohorts. When he’s at the crease, it’s an entirely different game. How frustrating it must be for him to witness the travails at the other end.
To the match itself: don’t quite write off England yet. We’ll need pretty much everything to go in our favour, but we can have a lead by 5pm this afternoon. Declare, put the West Indies under pressure for ninety minutes, and the game is still there to be won.