ENGLAND IN WEST INDIES, 2019
England arrived to the party far too late, when the music had stopped and the booze had run dry © AFP
After scoring a marathon unbeaten double hundred at the MCG last winter in the fourth Ashes Test, Alastair Cook admitted that the innings was bittersweet, coming after England had lost the opening three matches with precious few runs from Cook himself. The game in Melbourne was a dead-rubber, the series already gone. “It’s just a shame it’s three-four weeks too late,” Cook said during that match. “I’ll have to live with that for a long time.”
England could be forgiven for thinking similarly after a comprehensive victory over West Indies in St. Lucia. That it has taken three matches for them to produce the sort of strong performance expected of them in this series is something that will fester and frustrate. Why couldn’t they do it earlier? Why couldn’t they do it when the series was alive?
After defeats in the first two Tests, the 232-run win over a Jason Holder-less home team in St. Lucia cannot mask what has been a disappointing tour for England, particularly given the momentum they had built after excellent series victories against India and Sri Lanka last year. West Indies thoroughly deserved their win but England arrived to the party far too late, when the music had stopped and the booze had run dry.
As is the way of things in professional sport, teams look to take the positives out of defeats but before this match there were few to be had for England. Perhaps the bowling of Moeen Ali, but even he wasn’t at his best in the first Test in Barbados. In truth, the losses at Kensington Oval and in Antigua in the second match were dispiriting affairs for the tourists but victory in the final match has at least put England in a better frame of mind as they look ahead to a Test against Ireland at Lord’s in July and then the Ashes.
Captain Joe Root, who scored a fine second innings hundred in St. Lucia, is never one to avoid talking about the positives in press conferences and he was keen to emphasise after the victory in St. Lucia that, despite the series defeat to West Indies, England had won four out of six matches this winter – a vast improvement on their poor displays in Australia and New Zealand 12 months ago when they failed to win a single Test.
“It was nice to finish on a win,” Root said. “It’s been a tough old tour and we played some poor cricket at times but I thought this week we played really well. We have to learn from some of the mistakes but we also have to look at the things we’ve done well and we did plenty of that this week.
“It was really important we won this week. There are very big games around the corner, whether it’s World Cup cricket or the Ashes, and for this team to show that ‘bouncebackability’ and strength of character holds us in good stead heading into a high pressure summer.
“As a whole group – players, management, selectors – we are always looking to improve. We have done things differently and you look at this winter compared to last winter – four wins out of six looks like a lot better.
“If you look at things on a broader spectrum, and see this team developing – of course it’s disappointing to lose the series 2-1 – I feel that overall we are widening our ability as a team and a squad. Long term we will see that process continue.”
An important development, potentially, for Root’s team is the re-emergence of Mark Wood as a figure of note at Test level. The Durham fast-bowler has had a stop-start international career, due to a combination of injury problems and under-performance, but England have always had faith in him, believing that there was a special bowler lurking within to take the game by storm. That faith looked misplaced when he was dropped last summer but no longer.
There is still plenty of work to do of course but Wood’s performance in St. Lucia, where he took his maiden five-wicket haul in the first innings and bowled regularly in excess of 92 mph, proved he has the raw materials. Particularly away from home, England have been crying out for a Test-class bowler of genuine pace and provided Wood can stay fit and keep his pace up – two things he has been unable to do for sustained periods – they may just have found one.
“I don’t think I’ve ever stood that far back at slip before,” said Root afterwards. “And I’m still nursing a hole in my hand from the first one I clung on to. It’s a great story. To go away, work how he has with England Lions and find really good form. He should be really proud of what he did this week.
“It was great to see him unleash himself and see him bowl with that pace and freedom and that enjoyment as well. You always feel you’ll get the best out of Woody when he’s enjoying himself. We might have be smart about how we use him – it’s a learning curve for me, I am by no means the finished article as captain.”
There were many reasons for England’s defeat in this series, including selection and tactics but by the final game, they had stumbled across a formula that looks best placed to get the best out of a number of their players, including Ben Stokes who batted at six and was the fourth seamer in St. Lucia.
After a period of moving up and down the order, that role, one he has played for the majority of his Test career, seems to offer him the sort of freedom that his batting in particular has lacked in the past year. “I think Ben has approached this game with more of what he is about,” Root told Sky Sports. “He will openly admit in the last year-and-a-half he has found things a little bit difficult, he went too far the other way when wickets have been challenging.
“It is great to see him come and play in the manner he did in this match. When he is firing and playing in that manner it puts the opposition under huge pressure and he definitely gets the best out of himself.”
Individually and collectively, England failed to get the best out of themselves on this tour. They have slipped to number five in the world rankings as a result and will go into the Ashes with an uncertain top three, a perennial problem that this series has got no closer to solving. Root is right, though. Four wins from six this winter was an improvement on last year. England will take the positives.