It’s almost impossible to know where this test, a decision-maker, stands at the end of the first day. Is England’s 204 a good score, having been asked to bat first? Is the terrain, so crisp at first, becoming flatter? Only time will tell.
All we can say with absolute certainty is that from deep 67 for seven and 90 for eight and 114 for nine, with numbers two through seven in batting order, all are recording scores in single digits (the first time England has done so since 1950), tourists end the day much happier than seemed likely.
For that, they had their bowlers to thank. First Chris Woakes, who made 25, having entered when, immediately after lunch, three quick wickets fell with the score on 53. Then Jack Leach and Saqib Mahmood, No. 10 and 11, beat over 36 overs in a stubborn and sometimes elegant partnership worth 90. The scoreboard seemed to do a handstand.
At this time, the West Indies, so bustling before, were looking on their feet. After dropping Veerasammy Permaul for a fifth setter, Kyle Mayers, they missed a spinner to knock down the grunts. In 10 days of tough cricket on flat wickets, the other four tailors, all of whom were excellent, looked on their feet. Some of the commissioning was loose.
It was such a different story earlier. Kraigg Brathwaite won the coin toss for the first time in the series and cornered England. There was movement immediately, but Alex Lees and Zak Crawley patiently set about building England’s highest winter first-leg partnership – don’t get too excited, it’s 23 – over the 55 first minutes.
Then came the first of a series of very bad dismissals. Mayers plays floating, county-style swingers, and Crawley couldn’t resist a booming, upbeat workout. He hit him straight to cover. This exposed Joe Root who, later in Mayers’ opening spell of 5-5-0-2, was done by a nibbling touch and mistaken behind for a duck.
Lees and Dan Lawrence stayed on until shortly before lunch, when Jayden Seales went wide on the crease and trapped the Essex batter in front. He took a review with him, at the start of a four-for-seven slump. Shortly after the restart, Ben Stokes was caught and thrown pulling Alzarri Joseph, who quickly had Jonny Bairstow caught behind for nothing. By then, Lees’ vigil had been interrupted by Kemar Roach.
At this point, it looked like the field was misbehaving, especially when Ben Foakes and Craig Overton (who made double digits at least), were knocked down by those they expected to rebound more. In truth, they misinterpreted the length.
Woakes began the rebuild, before handing over to Leach and Mahmood immediately after tea. It was a joyous partnership, led by the stubbornness of Leach before Mahmood increased the score. It is his highest first-class tally (formerly 34), and he played some stunning shots, including hitting Mayers for six and moving to 49 in the day’s final trailing Jermaine Blackwood.
Alas at the next ball, Mahmood was thrown in search of a single. Leach got stuck 59 years before a first century.
Both men had had some lucky moments, with Leach down 10 and Mahmood down 15. But they had done a hell of a job for their team and kept them in the game. Friday, it will once again be bowlers.