Stokes must learn from counterpart and stick to Plan A
> Captain should follow lead of Holder by keeping to a strict line and length if England are to find a way back into the Test
It is a game of several firsts. The first Test behind closed doors. The first time an English season has started with a Test, and the first time since 1994 that two English umpires have stood in a home Test – without the happiest results so far.
And as West Indies embark on day three only 147 runs behind England with all of nine wickets in hand, Ben Stokes will need to become infinitely patient, both as a leader and bowler, if he is not to start his captaincy with a defeat.
Stokes has already enjoyed the share of luck which great generals need: while batting and setting up the brief counter-attack with Jos Buttler, he was dropped twice, on 14 and 32.
But this luck is running out, as the weather forecast suggests day three will be sunny and a batting day for the tourists – assuming you can call a visit to a country in various phases of lockdown a tour.
The patient role which Stokes has to play on day three could not have been defined more clearly by his counterpart, Jason Holder. Holder’s was an excellent exhibition of a kind which has traditionally been associated with English cricket: put the ball on fourth stump at no great pace, swing it mostly out then surprise the batsman with an inswinger, or let it kiss the surface and seam.
“My patience has definitely increased,” Holder said in the “player zone” at the end of the second day. “Patience was the thing I was probably lacking,” he advanced as the cause of his recent elevation to become No1 all-rounder in the Test rankings.
Objectivity would add another major difference: the West Indies’ reversion to their traditional strategy of four pace bowlers instead of Kemar Roach, Shannon Gabriel, Holder and a specialist spinner. He never had the penetration to be the third seamer of three, but he is a captain’s dream – his own – as fourth seamer.
As a batsman, Stokes lost patience. He had upset the bowlers’ full length by coming down the pitch and driving them in the “V”. Then he decided to expand his repertoire by clipping Holder’s off-stump half-volley to leg, instead of sticking with that signature shot, which makes the non-striker wary of backing up too far in case of a rebound run-out.
If the Ageas’s dry and uneven
pitch has not altered overnight, Stokes has to avoid Plans B, C and D: B for bouncers, C for chopping and changing the field to make it funky, and D for driving Jofra Archer into the ground, which is what happened in New Zealand and ended in his elbow injury.
These are unique circumstances as the first game of this summer, and pace bowlers who are overbowled here must be more prone to break down.
It has to be Plan A, of a strict line and a fullish length, which Holder personally demonstrated at the crux of England’s innings. Stokes had been dropped twice, West Indian heads had gone down and his other bowlers had started bowling shorter and wider. Holder set a model example of how to rally troops by word and deed.
The crux of West Indies’ first innings is liable to come when Jermaine Blackwood enters, bent on havoc. Kraigg Brathwaite and Shai Hope are not going to take the game away in a few overs, but if they can blunt England’s pace bowlers until the ball is old, Blackwood is unorthodox enough – a batsman who comes off one innings in five or six – to take the game away.
Another challenge for Stokes today will be his handling of his off-spinner.
West Indies’ only left-hander, John Campbell, has been dismissed. So, it is going to be a major test of Dom Bess, only 22, to see if he can hold the line against West Indian right-handers not averse to swiping, and of Stokes’s judgment in how long he keeps Bess on.
It was reassuring for England that Bess made a neat 31 to ease him into this series and illustrate his nature’s steadiness.
Judging when to review umpiring decisions is less taxing now that teams are allowed up to three unsuccessful reviews each. Holder was spot on every time he asked for a review, getting four umpiring decisions out of four overturned.
It was becoming rather embarrassing by the time the two Richards, Illingworth and Kettleborough, had seen five decisions in a row overturned.
If umpires are even rustier than batsmen and bowlers, there could be a few flashpoints when recreational cricket finally returns this weekend.
Holder’s was an excellent exhibition of a kind traditionally associated with English cricket