A suspenseful fifth day looms in Southampton, as late drama on Day Four restored the balance of the contest. It had swung England’s way for most of the day, but West Indies clawed back with a flurry of wickets in the final hour of the third session. England ended the day on 284/8, with a lead of 170, a far less commanding score than they had envisaged at one stage.
But they seemed headed for a larger total when Zak Crawley and Ben Stokes were motoring along. Crawley, the tall 22-year-old batsman from Kent, the most classical bow in England’s string, drove gorgeously, cut mercilessly and swept disdainfully. A sumptuous straight drive off Kemar Roach to warm up, a reverse sweep of Roston Chase to reach his second half-century in Tests, and a majestic back-foot punch off Shannon Gabriel to equal his Test highest — he illustrated his full range of strokes.
Stokes (46 off 79 balls) did what he does best, counterpunching and demoralising the bowlers. Their 98-run stand consumed only 25.1 overs, the rate of scoring giving England a realistic hope of winning the Test, before the twin blows came against the run of play. Stokes departed first, again to his counterpart Jason Holder. Next perished Crawley, who offered a sharp return catch to Alzarri Joseph. Two overs later, the pacy Antiguan took out Jos Buttler, the latter driving lazily. Shannon Gabriel then returned to devour Ollie Pope and Dom Bess.
But for much of the day, it was old-fashioned but absorbing cricket, with neither bowlers nor batsmen conceding an inch in their scrap. There was hardly anything extravagant, the bowlers hung faithfully to testing lines and lengths, while the batsmen diligently resisted indulgences. The lack of sideways movement meant labour for the four-pronged West Indies pace attack; a slow surface and a slower outfield implied hard work for batsmen. But in hindsight, West Indies will rue the exclusion of a specialist spinner.
Patience and discipline were the pervading virtues, and in that unfashionable battle England came out on top for most of the day. It suited this new-look England top order, trimmed of flash and flourish, rather a throwback to the dour 90s. All of the top three, each unique in their technique, are crease-occupiers than stroke-makers. Rory Burns has a backside-out base, he crouches, twitches and flaps his bat, and in between even manages a glance to midwicket as he awaits the ball. The quirkiness, he says, stems from his left-eye dominance. But when he meets the ball, usually late, his body is wonderfully balanced, head still and eyes right on top of the ball. His shots are orthodox and handsome, though he frittered away a start. Maybe, the sight of off-spinner Roston Chase induced a false sense of security. The killer ball was loose and short, an open invitation to cut, but he could only slice it airborne to backward point.
Nonetheless, he and Dom Sibley offer hope in England’s desperate pursuit for a reliable opening pair in the post-Alastair Cook era. The 72-runs alliance was the highest any England opening pair has stitched since 2017.
His partner Sibley held forth. The Warwickshire batsman — who had chalked off 12 kg during the lockdown — has a unique approach. He has opened up his stance, almost a mirror image of Shivnarine Chanderpaul, so that he could get stronger down the ground. Then like Steve Smith, he shuffles across, so exaggeratedly that the back-leg almost covers off-stump. But the reworked technique has reaped immediate success including a maiden Test hundred (in South Africa last January) and with Burns, he blunted the West Indies pace quartet until a spell of distraction after reaching his 50 cost him.
Joe Denly’s technique is more orthodox, but his tendency to play away from the body, after showing tremendous effort to refrain from it, resulted in his exit, chipping a harmless ball straight to Jason Holder at midwicket off Chase. Denly’s exit brought Stokes to the crease, and from then on, England lifted the tempo. It all ran according to script until the manic last hour, which restored the glorious balance of the match.
Brief scores: England 204 & 284/8 (Crawley 76, Sibley 50; Gabriel 3/62) lead West Indies 318 by 170 runs