There was jubilation across the cricket world when Test cricket returned after months of inactivity as the West Indies took on England in a bio-secure bubble, without spectators at the ground, in the first game at Southampton. Despite rain threatening to play spoilsport early on, the contest was a nail-biting one, decided late on the fifth day, with West Indies pulling off a thrilling four-wicket win.
Jermaine Blackwood was the batting hero for West Indies with a second-innings 95 while Shannon Gabriel hogged the bowling limelight, picking up nine wickets in the match. Gabriel was named the Man of the Match.
Holder hails Gabriel
Understandably, the West Indies captain, Jason Holder, was all praise for his fast bowling spearhead. “What Shannon has done in this game is nothing surprising,” Holder said after the victory. “Shannon is one of those guys who just keeps doing it. He has a big heart, a massive, massive heart. And he’s been through a lot and he wants success badly. His body has not held the way he has liked. To see him back fit, running in and bowling fast is always a pleasing sight. He deserves every bit of success he’s had so far in this game.”
Gabriel, who figures of 4 for 62 and 5 for 75, has been prone to injury but he held strong through this match. “For us it is about just about managing Shannon as best as possible,” Holder said.
“He’s a rhythm bowler as well. So, he needs to get some miles on the legs, and some rhythm into the legs. I know what he’s been through, we kept in contact when he was going through rehab. Some stage he was frustrated by how things were going, but he stuck it through. He had a good team behind him in Trinidad, done a lot of work with as well. Again, he reaped the success that we all presumed he would have gotten just based on the calibre of bowler he is. We all know when Shannon is fit and healthy, he can be a handful and he proved difficult in this game.”
Win tops 2017 effort for West Indies
The win invited comparisons to West Indies’s tour of England three years ago, but Holder believed that this effort was more significant. “To beat England in England is not an easy feat,” Holder said. “We were able to do that when we were here in 2017, so we know what that feels like. But things have changed drastically since then and they are a massive unit in their backyard. To start the series this well is very-very promising for us. And we feel very proud of the way we performed.”
There were nerves, however, when the fifth and final day began, with the result far from being a foregone conclusion. “On the final morning of the Test, when I woke up, I wanted to fast forward to the end of the day with us winning. At the start I guess there were a few nerves going through the dressing room. But Roston Chase and Jermaine Blackwood really-really settled those nerves down and got us into a position to a lay foundation. We knew once we had a partnership, the England bowlers would go flat. But credit to England, they threw a lot at us. Ben Stokes, James Anderson, Jofra Archer, Mark Wood – they all put in a hell of effort and they were all challenging.”
Holder also gave credit to England’s batsmen, despite the game not being an especially high scoring one. “We saw how Zak Crawley played really well but he had Stokes at the other end to form a partnership with, and he had a bit of a partnership with Joe Denly as well. So yes, credit to how well they played. It was no easy Test match. They kept coming, kept running in. To start the series well is a pleasing feeling but 10 tough days still left in the series.”
Key England decisions under the scanner
With the Test match lost, some of the decisions made by stand-in captain Ben Stokes came in for criticism from the experts. The first was leaving Stuart Broad out of the playing XI. Broad has been one of England’s most successful bowlers of all time and he was understandably upset at being thought surplus to requirement and said as much in an interview while the match was still under way. But Stokes did not blame selection for the defeat.
“I stand by my decision. If I didn’t, what type of message does it give to the guys we picked? It was a very tough call to leave someone like Stuart out. His record is obviously phenomenal. But we made a call before a ball was bowled that I felt pace was going to be more beneficial in the long run to us winning this game,” said Stokes. “Obviously we lost, but I am not going to look back on this Test match and have any regrets. It shows we are in a great position to be able to pick so many bowlers and leave someone of Stu’s quality out. It is a great place to be at. But I stand by my selection.”
Stokes was also asked about the wisdom of choosing to bat first in conditions that favoured seam and swing bowling. “We will be able to look back on that, particularly as a batting unit and understand when we get into positions like we did in the first innings and our second innings batting that we need to be really ruthless,” Stokes said. “Understanding that when we are on top, to not give it back to the opposition, regardless of who that is. If we had another 60 or 80 runs to play with today, it would have been a different game. We had opportunities to do that in both innings with the bat in our hands.”
Stokes added that he took no issue whatsoever with the strong words Broad uttered when asked about his being left out. “I thought it was absolutely brilliant,” he said. “If he wasn’t like that, I would be worried. To see somebody like that, who has played over a hundred Test matches and got so many wickets, to still see the fire burning inside, it was fantastic to see.”
Root’s return boosts England
When the second Test match begins in Manchester, England will be boosted by the return of Joe Root, their full-time captain. Root missed the first Test to be with his wife for the birth o their child.
Holder believed that Root’s absence was a factor in the first Test. “I think England missing Root was a big miss, he’s a high quality player. We saw it as an opportunity to really get into their inexperienced batting line up,” said the West Indies captain. “There was a lot of pressure on Stokes to score and to come big with the likes of young Ollie Pope and Jos Buttler in the lower half, the top order relies a lot on Rory Burns too, because he is quite solid, he soaks up a lot of balls and he makes bowlers fight really-really hard for the wickets too. I think for us those four really stood out and we really needed to get them out as early as possible.”
For Stokes, the return of Root cannot come soon enough. “I can see why Joe loses a lot of sleep because he’s got to do that every game. I’ve really enjoyed the responsibility of leading the team and making decisions out there.”
Job well done but plenty of work ahead
Phil Simmons, the former West Indies allrounder currently coaching the team, hailed the win in the first Test but reminded his players that there was plenty of work left to be done in the series. “For me it was a great win because I think that it signified a lot of hard work being done by the players over the last four or five weeks,” said Simmons. “But you don’t come to England and just win a Test match. It was a top-class Test match, with good cricket played by both teams, and even coming down to the last hour, it could have gone either way.
The West Indies coach said that being ahead in the series, with two Tests to play, was a significant advantage. “To come out on top. It’s been great for us, and it was important because you don’t want to have to chase England in England. So the chasing is from their point of view now. But you guard against complacency by just trying to do the same things you did before the first Test. Right now that Test match is history. We’ve got to be thinking about what we do from Thursday to Monday.”