> England’s new leader comes off second best in battle of the captains with Holder
Forget about this being an antiseptic exercise in fulfilling broadcast deals. There was intense, competitive Test cricket yesterday, exemplified by Jason Holder emphatically winning the first battle of the captain all-rounders to put West Indies in charge.
With the ball holding sway, this is set up to be a low-scoring, tight match unless batting becomes easier in the sunny weather forecast for the weekend.
West Indies are in a position to enjoy those conditions, at 57 for one in response to England’s 204, with their batsmen hanging on in tough conditions after their bowlers had earlier proved that the hosts’ top order weaknesses had not eased during lockdown. Ben Stokes may face criticism for batting first in good bowling conditions but West Indies are on top because of their skill and precision with the ball and some limp dismissals.
Holder led from the front and seized the moment for his team, picking up Stokes’s wicket during a spell after lunch that flipped England’s innings from 154 for five to 174 for nine. Holder roused his team with six for 42 and only Imran Khan has recorded better captain’s figures against England. But the real nub of Holder’s contribution was his four-wicket burst just when England were beginning to bristle, with Stokes and Jos Buttler forming a counterattack.
West Indies were rattled. Kemar Roach had dropped Stokes at fine leg on 14 before lunch, and heads dropped when Sharmarh Brooks fluffed a simple catch at extra cover when he was on 32. Gifting chances to Stokes loses Tests. The innings was at a tipping point.
With Buttler and Stokes carving runs at five an over, exploiting a tiring Shannon Gabriel, Holder brought himself back on to exert control.
He admitted afterwards his model is Glenn McGrath, a bowler of similar height and pace. Many try to emulate McGrath. Few manage it as consistently as Holder these days. Holder keeps it simple, hammering away monotonously at off stump and combines it with lateral movement that brings him his wickets. He swings the ball more than anyone else in world cricket, according to the tracking data held by analysts Cricviz, and his career has rocketed since 2018 as a result.
It took Holder 31 Tests to collect 56 wickets and they cost 38 runs each. But over the past 10 games he has taken another 56 at an average lower than 12, an astonishing improvement he puts down to concentrating on the basics of line and length and when to use his inswinger. The better running of West Indies Cricket has also enabled him to concentrate on cricket, not politics.
Stokes had walked out of his crease to dominate Roach and tried the same against Holder but slugging it out is trickier against a bowler of greater height and bounce. His second ball from Holder nipped past the outside edge, the third clipped it as Stokes played across the line and was caught behind.
An absolutely perfect delivery
accounted for Buttler in his next over, and Holder revelled in dismissing Jofra Archer for nought for his fifth wicket, using a review after the original decision had been turned down.
When Mark Wood edged to gully, Holder’s job was done. His six-over spell was four for 14 but the wicket burst of four for three runs in 14 balls was the killer punch.
The Covid-19 pause was always going to make the return harder for batsmen than bowlers. Physically, bowling is draining and more dangerous on tendons and bones but batsmen need rhythm and time at the crease. Netting for 45 minutes at a time cannot replicate batting in a Test, where concentration has to last for hours. Only matches can do that.
Joe Denly will probably last the series. His move to three signals he is ahead of Zak Crawley and ahead in the survival stakes when Joe Root returns, but he badly needs runs. The fact that he bats patiently, chewing up balls and battles away for team-mates can only be used as justification for keeping his place for so long. He needs a heavy-scoring series but being beaten for pace and having his off stump sent flying thanks to a big gap between bat and pad was not a good look for a Test No3.
Rory Burns looked reassuringly solid. He scored his 1,000th run as an opener when he reached 21, becoming the first Englishman to do so for England since Alastair Cook in 2007. But he was one of several England batsmen who failed to convert a start, missing a fuller ball from Gabriel who was pitching it up further than on day one.
Denly’s dismissal gave Crawley his chance but he was stiff-legged and upright as he was pinned lbw by Holder. It was the second time Holder had overturned a not-out lbw decision and, in total, the umpires had five decisions reversed, showing it is not just players who need matches to be on their game.
Ollie Pope exuded class immediately, with fours off Holder through midwicket and extra cover, but perhaps he was just too impetuous and too keen to stamp his mark. He dangled his bat out at a wideish ball from Holder he could have left, trying to steer it to third man when he should have let it go harmlessly by. Suddenly, a batting line-up without Root looked very vulnerable and, ultimately, Buttler and Stokes could not mount a sustained rescue act.
With the ball swinging and the pitch difficult to gauge, England sniffed wickets but John Campbell frustrated James Anderson by twice overturning lbw calls before it was third time lucky. England bowled well enough and have plenty of pace and Anderson’s wiles to bail out the batsmen today but Holder has the game in his grasp.