Only hardcore England fans who struggle to appreciate the bigger picture will be mourning today. Yesterday’s dramatic finish at Headingley was good for cricket and brilliant for the West Indies in particular.
A week ago I almost wrote a piece discussing whether the Windies should be stripped of their test status. I wasn’t going to advocate doing so but I thought it might be time to at least have a conversation about it. Thank heavens I resisted. It would’ve looked mighty stupid now.
Yesterday’s result was completely unexpected. A Windies win looked ridiculously far-fetched before a ball was bowled, and because of Moeen Ali’s brilliant innings on Monday, it looked almost as far fetched at the start of day five. Let’s not forget that the Windies hadn’t won a test in England for 17 long years. And they’ve got substantially worse (by every possible metric) since then.
Consequently their win at Headingley must rank as one of the biggest upsets in test history. Their brilliant batting in both innings seemed utterly unfathomable after their lamentable effort at Edgbaston, where they lost 19 wickets in a day. England weren’t just expected to win by miles; everyone simply assumed they would.
What was even more remarkable was that the Windies dropped so many catches. Theirs wasn’t a perfect performance by any means. They basically fell apart in the field on day 4 and their bowlers’ heads dropped alarmingly. Yet they still won. Why? Because two of their batsmen had the matches of their lives.
Shai Hope and Kraigg Brathwaite were magnificent in this match. Any number of superlatives wouldn’t do their performances justice. Brathwaite was dogged, determined, and grittier than a gravel driveway. Shai Hope was breathtaking. A new star has been born.
I can’t believe a player as good as Hope only averaged in the teens a week ago. His batting has real panache and he also played very sensibly for a youngster. Let’s hope that Shai turns into the new Richie Richardson rather than the next Mark Ramprakash … who also once scored a beautiful hundred in a test match between these teams. I’d love Hope to back up this performance and become a real role model for West Indies cricket. Every country needs an icon for the game to prosper.
As for England … where does one start? Losing like this, at home, at an idiosyncratic ground like Headingley, to opponents ranked 8th in the world (opponents that hadn’t beaten anyone above them in the rankings for almost a decade), is utterly humiliating. We were expected to win big after our victory at Edgbaston. Instead we were sent packing by a perceived minnow whose best players don’t seem to care about test cricket. It doesn’t get much worse than that.
Although there’s no shame in losing when two individuals play so brilliantly – shit can happen I guess – Joe Root looked crestfallen in the post-match interviews. And so he should. His team remain infuriatingly inconsistent in the long form. One day England look like world-beaters and potential Ashes winners; the next they look as ordinary as flat pint that’s been sitting beneath a chair on the western terrace all day.
I don’t want to be too harsh on Root, as most people agreed with his decision to bat first on day one and then declare on the fourth evening, but both choices backfired dramatically … and he knows it. By batting first England’s fragile top order were exposed to the best bowling conditions in the match. Everyone thought the pitch would deteriorate but the team innings totals increased as the game progressed: 258, 427, 490-8 dec, and then 322-5. Oooops.
I wonder if Joe had considered this when he decided to declare? I don’t blame him for making a positive decision (most observers including myself would’ve done the same) but I do think that England’s braintrust underestimated the opposition. Put it this way, would Root have declared in such circumstances had England been 1-0 up in an Ashes series? I doubt it. He would’ve looked at the likes of Warner and Smith and paused for thought.
Although most people will blame England’s top order novices for this defeat, I don’t think it’s as simple as that. Stoneman made a gutsy half-century in the second dig and Malan also dug in admirably when England were overcoming their first innings deficit. Tom Westley failed again – he looks mentally shot I’m afraid – but one batsman having an off-game isn’t unusual.
Instead I blame the bowlers for this shocking result. Once again we struggled to take wickets on a blameless surface – a failure we’d almost forgotten about after a summer in which ball has generally dominated bat. Broad had a poor game, Stokes wasn’t able to fulfil his role as ‘the enforcer’ (whatever that means), and Woakes was good with the bat but extremely disappointing with the ball.
Long-term I still think Woakes should play ahead of Toby Roland-Jones. He’s quicker, he’s a better fielder, and a much better batsman. However, the Woakes that played at Leeds wasn’t the same one we’ve grown to appreciate in recent times. He was operating at 80% and didn’t look match-fit. In fact, he looked a lot like the ineffective Woakes who struggled at the start of his England career: medium pace and about as intimidating as his football team, Aston Villa.
The selectors and management must take responsibility for Woakes’ inclusion. It was a poor decision that backfired dramatically. After all, if you’re going to play a bowler like Toby Roland-Jones anywhere in the country, it would be at Headingley – a ground that’s traditionally favoured bowlers who pitch it up.
Once again I think England underestimated the West Indies. They probably selected Woakes because they thought they’d win whoever they picked. Although TRJ had done brilliantly thus far, they wanted to get Woakes back in fold because they expected him to play a prominent role this winter. In other words, they were looking ahead rather than focusing on the game in hand.
The good news, however, is that Australia have their own problems at the moment. They’ve just lost to Bangladesh by 20 runs in Dhaka after losing their last 6 wickets for 57 runs. Perhaps this winter’s Ashes series won’t be a battle of heavyweights after all. Bangladesh against the West Indies on the other hand …
If they ever introduce two divisions in test cricket, they might have to rethink which teams will start in the second tier.