It has been an ugly struggle for English batsmen on this tour but finally a couple of them have popped their heads above the parapet. Ben Stokes, bristling like the pre- Bristol version, and Jos Buttler, calmly aligning his talents to the demands of Test cricket, added an unbeaten 124 together in 35 overs. England finished their most satisfactory day of the tour on 231 for four. It might have been their luckiest as well.
On 52 Stokes was ostensibly caught and bowled by Alzarri Joseph as he miscued a pull shot. He disappeared to the pavilion, where he would have had time to carefully return his bat to his bag. Then he was recalled to the middle when it was discovered that Joseph had overstepped.
England’s total is not massive, at least not yet. In part that is a consequence of a cloying pitch and a sluggish outfield. Their first three wickets mustered 69 runs in 34 overs. England have endured worse starts in this series but the top three batsmen resembled sappers sent out to do an unenviable, precarious task – and an unpopular one.
But, with Stokes and Buttler prospering in the final session, the top order could at least claim that they had forced the pacemen to sweat a little before departing.
The match began in low-key style once the decisions had been made – Stokes was fit to play and Keemo Paul was named as Jason Holder’s replacement – and the anthems sung. West Indies opted to field, whereupon Kemar Roach bowled too wide at the left-handers and Shannon Gabriel struggled for rhythm and pace. And then it rained for half-an-hour. It was classic dead rubber fare.
It livened up a bit after the rain break. In the ninth over Keaton Jennings should have been out twice to Roach. He would have been lbw if the West Indies had reviewed and then he was dropped at third slip by Roston Chase.
Jennings was unable to make anything of those escapes. To the first ball after the drinks interval, which was also the first to be delivered by Paul, he aimed another stiff-legged drive and was caught at slip. So ended 43 balls of torment. His was almost a cruel selection; he has no form, a few days ago he probably had no expectation of playing, and yet he was tossed under the microscope once more.
Some might regard it as generous that he should be given another chance. In fact the selectors have done him no favours because with another failure in the second innings he will be jettisoned and the fact that he has been given yet another chance means that he will now have to score a mountain of runs for Lancashire to come back again. Given the latest deployment of England’s batsmen, they may as well have invited Ben Foakes to bat at three and run around in the outfield.
Paul also took the second wicket of the day when he removed Rory Burns for 29. By then the Surrey opener had faced twice as many deliveries as any other English batsman in the series – normally this would be a statistic to prompt much elation, but not on this tour. Flicking towards his favoured leg-side, Burns was plumb lbw, though not until West Indies had reviewed.
These two scalps represented a great start to the day for Paul, a cricketer of obvious talent. His full name is Keemo Mandela Angus Paul. Keemo is a puzzle, Mandela would have been chosen for obvious reasons, and Angus? There is a theory gaining momentum that this might be a reference to an old English paceman. Paul was born a fortnight after Angus Fraser took 20 wickets in two consecutive Tests in Trinidad in 1998. Perhaps his parents listened, rather than watched, as this English giant ploughed through the West Indies’ lineup almost 21 years ago. Paul is of similar pace but he walks back to his mark quicker and his run-up is a tad more feline than Fraser’s.
Joe Denly made a slightly better fist of riding his luck. Just before lunch West Indies opted to review for a catch down the leg-side when Gabriel was bowling. Shimron Hetmyer at short leg was convinced the ball had touched Denly’s right glove. And he was right. Yet Denly survived because umpire Chris Gaffaney, in front of the television, decided that the batsman’s glove was no longer touching his bat. In which case “not out” was the right call, though there is a case to reconsider this law.
Denly had reached his highest Test score of 20 when he was lbw to Gabriel. Now the pressure intensified on England’s batsmen. A tentative Joe Root took 20 balls from the novice Paul to get off the mark. He was caution personified until an attempted cut shot against Joseph resulted in an edge to the keeper.
Root’s despair at his own dismissal gave way to a smile when late in the day Stokes had the opportunity to pick up his bat in the dressing room and return to the middle. Stokes was unbeaten on 62 at the close; five more runs and he will have posted his highest score since his return to the team after the last Ashes series.