“Well, some high-quality pace bowling, a spiteful deck and tough character displayed by two batsmen on such a deck – what more does one need to enjoy Test cricket”?
“People come to stadiums to watch boundaries and sixes” had been one of the most widely used theories by some of the commentators from subcontinent in the mid and late 90s. This theory became contagious and even some started to state the same it in 5-day matches as well. This had an impact in the minds of officials around the globe and for which, in the better parts of last decade and this decade to an extent, witnessed sleeping beauties even on venues, where, once upon a time, pace, bounce and swing ruled the roost.
Venues like Antigua started to favour the batsmen more. The Daddy hundreds were scripted easily as the home team bowlers were found grinding under the hot sun. Predictable decks and a predictable result kept spectators away from watching a Test in a venue, where each and every Test match meant a carnival in the 80s and 90s. The West Indian think tank forgot why were they famous for, what people in the Caribbean loved to watch!
Also read: West Indian devastation at Barbados
Andy Roberts, Malcolm Marshall, Michael Holding and Joel Garner were the darlings of every Caribbean venue and in Antigua, their hostility gave the crowd same amount joy like the blitzes of Sir Vivian Richards. In those days, tracks in West Indies suited fast bowlers more and it played a vital part in giving rise to legendary fast bowlers, who helped West Indies dominate the world for almost two decades. A change in plans hampered the growth of Test cricket in West Indies. Definitely, you need helpful decks to attract the youngsters in West Indies take fast bowling seriously. Perhaps, West Indies have started to realize this after a lull.
After the thumping win at Bridgetown Barbados and mesmerizing display by fast bowlers, the spice in the deck at Antigua was expected. But the deck was not only helpful for fast bowling; rather, it had a certain amount of unpredictability. As Jonny Bairstow said to Sky Sports after Day 1, “If you look at the pitch, there’s two different grass types. From where the balls were bouncing, there was either a ridge there or something to do with the grass, but unfortunately, a few dismissals came from balls that made us play certain shots”.
Indeed, the track at Antigua was spiteful – much unpredictable, but nevertheless, it delivered one hell of an exciting day of Test cricket.
When Alzarri Joseph dished out a brutish lifter from a length, which flew off the handle of Joe Root towards slip where the catch was taken by an acrobatic slip-pairing of John Campbell and Shai Hope, the roar of the crowd hinted, what they love to relish and what West Indies cricket had been missing over the years. Or when a Shannon Gabriel leg cutter, delivered from wider of the crease at pace, which cut Ben Stokes into halves after a war of words; it seemed West Indies cricket wants to make aggression their brand once again. Of course, Antigua’s spiteful deck was supporting their wish.
The tempo was set by the wreaker in chief at Barbados. Who else but Kemar Roach, yet again, bowled with a great hostility! He started off from round the wicket and his first delivery of the day was a tad short of a length at pace and baffled debutante Joe Denly who almost dragged the ball onto his stumps. The intention of West Indies was clear from first ball of the day. They have found a deck to support their brand of play – sheer hostility with the ball in hand.
In the morning session, West Indian pacers concentrated on movement as Cricviz says, “West Indies’ seamers found an average of 0.78° of seam movement, the second highest figure they’ve ever extracted from the surface at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium, behind the 0.92° they found against Bangladesh last year”. Then as the day progressed, the variable bounce made things tougher for England.
The ball bouncing from a good length in an unpredictable manner, not only tested the character and technique of batters, but at the same time, delivered a fascinating contest.
With the West Indian pacers at the top of their game, Jonny Bairstow decided to shun the “hunker down” approach and counterattack to conquer the perilous nature of pitch. He was cultured in his shot selection as none of the attacking strokes was reckless, but technically spot on.
As Cricviz says, “On a pitch as difficult as this, Bairstow’s was a quite remarkable innings. It was not just a case of taking the necessary risk to counter-attack but to have the ability to execute those shots as well. To put into context how effective Bairstow’s strategy was, his 20 attacking shots yielded 41 runs; that’s a run rate of 12.30 runs per over. Bairstow has never recorded a higher attacking shot run rate in an innings where he’s played 15 or more attacking shots”.
At the other end, Moeen Ali’s composure came to display. Before this Test, he averaged 9.87 with the bat in last 4 Test matches and his lack of patience was evident and even he confessed about it. His patience was required on this deck and for more than an hour, he batted with resolve to avoid yet another collapse. He was behind the line of the deliveries more than previous Test matches and kept on fighting the demons underneath the surface with astute footwork and defence. The end was ugly, but the innings was extremely valuable.
Well, some high-quality pace bowling, a spiteful deck and tough character displayed by two batsmen on such a deck – what more does one need to enjoy Test cricket? It would be unfair to say that the Antigua deck was unfit for Test cricket. Rather, it was a deck, which gives enough hope to Test cricket, as the fans are enjoying the unpredictability rather than the dullness provided by the Daddy hundreds on featherbeds