In the lush and verdant shadow of the hills towering over the Darren Sammy Stadium, England could finally breathe again. It was tough going at times, and a cynic might be tempted to conclude that their luck came in when they least needed it. But as Jos Buttler and Ben Stokes eased their way towards stumps with an unbroken partnership of 124, we were again reminded that Test cricket is a game that rewards the persistent.
It was a day of two halves, as England’s top order again laboured in the heat and for a time their middle order looked like folding again. But after some hair-raising early moments, Buttler and Stokes played with application and maturity, securing England’s best day of the series so far, albeit clearing a lamentably low bar.
Stokes looked a touch leaden-footed at times, still evidently labouring under the pain of an injured heel that had almost forced him out of this Test match. But it was he who got England out of the mud at 107-4, moving the pace along and earning full value for his shots on a slow outfield. Buttler, meanwhile, now has eight fifties in 23 innings and an average of 41 since his return to the red-ball game last summer. He may drop a few too many in the slips, but only the most cussed would deny he improves this team.
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Still there were caveats to England’s cautious progress. The top three remains a shaky edifice. Joe Root is evidently in bad nick. And their opponents were strangely lax after two excellent Tests, dropping two catches in the slips and taking the wicket of Stokes from a no-ball. Thirty extras came in the day, and perhaps the West Indies missed their suspended captain Jason Holder more than they would have anticipated. In contrast to Holder’s clear and proactive sense of purpose, stand-in Kraigg Brathwaite seemed a good deal more sluggish, and the over rate was pretty much as bad as it was in Antigua.
Brathwaite had been sharp enough in inviting England to bat on winning the toss, and if the decision smacked ever so slightly of psychological bluster on a true and essentially obedient pitch, then you can hardly blame an in-form fast bowler for wanting an early crack at a demoralised opponent. Particularly when that opponent is Keaton Jennings, recalled to the side for reasons of convenience as much as anything else. It does help when your main rivals for the job are 9,000 miles away, and during a painful hour at the crease Jennings did little to suggest his third crack at Test cricket might end any more happily than the first two.
Those of you who have seen This Is Spinal Tap will remember the hapless band manager Ian Faith, and the vintage cricket bat he would carry around on tour – “a kind of totemistic thing”, as he put it – and these days Jennings appears to carry his bat for the same largely ornamental reasons. Something to set off the look. He may not use it much, but he’d looked darned silly without it.
Jennings should have been out twice before he was actually out: LBW to Kemar Roach only for the West Indies to decline a review, and then dropped by Roston Chase at third slip in the same over. Still, if Jennings’s Test career has taught us anything, it’s that however many lives you give him, he will always need one more. On 8 he took a big drive at the first ball from Keemo Paul – selected ahead of Oshane Thomas – and was caught at slip. That bat was weighing him down, anyway.
Stokes overcame injury to star for England on Saturday (Getty)
Nonetheless it was a better start from England, even if Rory Burns and Joe Denly never quite looked comfortable. The scoring rate remained below two an over in a morning session briefly interrupted by rain, but despite a few close shaves they made it to 69 before both were out LBW in the space of seven balls. Burns tried to turn a straight ball to leg; Denly was pinned on the crease by the superb Shannon Gabriel, who was just beginning to wind up and open his impressively broad shoulders.
Gabriel could have had two or three more in a scintillating spell after lunch, but it was Alzarri Joseph who ended up making the breakthrough. Root spent two hours on Wednesday working with batting coach Mark Ramprakash on his alignment at the crease, and on this evidence it remains an issue. His trigger movement, which at his classical best takes him half a pace back into his crease, seems to be moving more towards leg stump, hampering him as he tries to transfer his weight into the ball. The result was a series of ugly, unbalanced swishes at wide deliveries before the one that eventually got him, Root getting a thin edge through to Shane Dowrich.
England were 107-4 when Root departed and at that point it would have been cruel but fair to posit that his call for England to be “more consistent” had been fulfilled, although not quite in the way he would have hoped. Certainly there were few England supporters entertaining high hopes as Buttler and Stokes jerked scratchily into their innings. Indeed, Buttler could well have been out on 0, a wild drive flying over the slips when their absent 6ft 8in captain would probably have pouched it with ease.
Joe Root once again failed with the bat in the West Indies (Getty)
Stokes, meanwhile, died several deaths before he finally got going. There was a leading edge into the vacant point area, an inside edge past his stumps, an agonisingly close review for LBW that was clipping the bails. But perhaps the main difference between Stokes and the less experienced batsmen up the order is that such scrapes seem to embolden rather than perturb him. Suspecting that it might be his day, he began to climb into his strokes, punching firm bottom-handed drives through the covers, doing the bulk of the scoring as Buttler dropped anchor.
Finally, at the end of a chastening series, England had a little respite. Although the intakes of breath were rather sharp when Stokes smashed a return catch straight to Joseph on 52, only to be recalled when he was halfway up the dressing room steps after replays showed a marginal no-ball. Brathwaite brought himself on and bowled spin at both ends in an attempt to raise the over rate, and as a consequence the day seemed to fade rather than build to a close, soundtracked by the DJ spinning tunes in the party stand. And for once, England’s fans had something to cheer on the field as well as off it.