Friday, February 20, 2009

It's Calypso cricket, Andrew, but not as we know it

Fortune favours the brave. He who dares wins. Just a couple of cliches that could be, and have been, applied to England's 3rd Test in Antigua. If you're feeling particularly vitriolic, you could apply them more specifically to Andrew Strauss's captaincy. In these days of instant success or failure, a lot of questions, if not criticism, will be placed at the spikes of Andrew Strauss.

But this was only Strauss's second Test match as captain proper. It was also one in exceptionally unusual circumstances, although given the Mumbai bombing-affected Tests last December, abandoning one due to the pitch being more like a beach and rearranging the next for two days later must seem like pretty standard fare by comparison. Regardless, several key decisions had to be made, and as it was England drew a Test they should have won.

The first decision was whether to make the West Indies follow on, after dismissing them for a first innings total of 285. Strauss instead chose to bat again. Was he right? England's bowlers were on a roll, there was enough time in the day to take another couple of West Indies wickets, and possibly pile on the pressure for day three. They could have knocked the West Indies all out for an innings defeat, or leaving a meagre total to chase in England's second innings.

But: Flintoff had picked up an injury. Harmison had been unwell all day. In fact the whole team had toiled admirably in the hot sun all day, and would have to do so again indefinitely the next day. Batting again, the West Indies could have posted a total some 200/250 ahead of England, leaving Strauss's men a difficult run chase and the danger of losing. And bearing in mind the last match's 51...

So for my money, it seems in hindsight that not enforcing the follow on was the right choice. By leading England out to bat again, Strauss ensured that England eventually put themselves in an unassailable position - 500 runs ahead. But one or two points stick with how he got there.

The second decision in sending James Anderson out as a nightwatchman at the end of day three was too defensive. We weren't protecting a lead because every run gained was an extra piece of the target for West Indies to have to chase, so a lower order nightwatchman was a hindrance as Anderson slowed things down - especially on the morning of day four - in Strauss's quest to reach a 500+ lead. Thirdly, there are question marks over the need to have that high a lead anyway. By giving the West Indies 450 or so to think about, a carrot dangling so to speak, they may have been inclined to go for their shots, take risks, and be more likely to go out. Did Strauss effectively price Windies out of the game to England's cost? Was he too worried about losing?

Well, really the answer is no. The Windies reached 380 - not all out, either - when trying not to take risks and score lots of runs. The ground, small and uneven, is notorious for having big run-scoring records broken on it. A lead of anything less than 500 would have been less of a carrot dangling, and more on a plate: England bowled 128 overs defending 503, and even then the West Indies only needed to score 4 an over to win against that lead. If they'd have been actually trying to score runs to win rather than avoid defeat, and especially if that target had been sub-500, who would have bet against the Windies getting there?

So we've established that Strauss's decision not to enforce the follow on was correct, the decision to declare with a 500+ lead was sensible, even if putting out Anderson slowed up the scoring. Why, then, did England not win?

There's a case to be made for the weather. England lost 75 minutes bowling time to rain, and bearing in mind England spent about 35 minutes trying to get the last wicket, it would be safe to say that with an extra 75 minutes that task would have been achieved. Of course, that is too simplistic because in the morning both Chanderpaul and Sarwan were at the crease, so it was they who would have taken up the minutes. but who's to say we'd not have rattled through them before tea, if it hadn't been for the rain?

Ifs, buts, maybes. The real truth of the matter, and the central point to this roundabout defence of Andrew Strauss, is that he is captain of a side that is not as good as it was two, three, four years ago - bowling especially. Anderson and Harmison shared just four of the 19 West Indies wickets to fall - Harmison in particular looked sluggish, bowling short and erratically for the most part. Swann is a virtual beginner in Test cricket, bowling in just his third ever Test - and he was England's keynote spinner. Broad, so useful in the second innings, remains expensive, and is only just beginning to show signs of maturing into a consistent world class bowler. Flintoff was the man to make things happen with the ball, but is short of full fitness and hasn't made a noteworthy score with the bat since returning from injury.

On the subject of batting, Pietersen's oddly subdued innings, Cook's two unconverted 50s, Owais Shah's uneventful debut and Collingwood's place-saving (career-saving?) century all went unnoticed in the excitement. No real complaints but overall, England were taught a lesson in Antigua on how to bat in the face of adversity, how to apply oneself to the task in hand and contribute to a match-saving team effort.

Cometh the hour, it was cometh the West Indies performers. England have got positives to build upon - I remain convinced that this match would have been an England victory but for the rain delay - but Strauss has got to ensure his troops are rallied, confident and prepared to win in the 4th Test.

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