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Holder, Gabriel and Blackwood star in the morale booster away-win in the first match of the Wisden Trophy .

A short of a good length delivery from Mark Wood just nipped back in a little, Shai Hope, in an attempt to defend, got a thin inside edge and what followed was his off-stump shattered, and England celebrated. Within an hour of 4th innings, West Indies slumped to 27/3, with a retired hurt John Campbell. In came, Jermaine Blackwood, who has been criticized in the past, owing to carelessness and for not playing according to the situation.

Everyone watching had similar thought crossing their minds, ‘Not Again!’ Since the West Indies bowlers had done a brilliant job in bowling England out for 313 on the final day of the first Test, it meant they needed to chase 200 runs to go 1-0 in the Wisden Trophy. But, losing three quick wickets and a player to an injury was not what the doctor ordered, as they had 88 overs to chase the target down.

Jermaine Blackwood scored 95 off 154 balls  West Indies
Jermaine Blackwood scored 95 off 154 balls 

It was a game, everyone in the sporting world and the cricketing world especially, was looking forward to for many reasons. It was the first international game since March 13, 2020, when New Zealand took on Australia in the first match of the Trans-Tasman ODI series, after which it was called off due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The game was being played under some rule changes, especially in Test Cricket, and the major one was the no-saliva rule. The saliva in Test Cricket is like every priced possession of a person, you realize its importance when it is not there anymore. Another one was the allowance of an extra review since the umpires allowed are all local, thus some inexperienced umpires might come into play, leading to an increase in the number of unsuccessful reviews.

The match will be memorable for many reasons, but cricket will be best to remember it.

The Wednesday morning in Southampton, a soft drizzle, skin piercing chilly winds and even the clouds got darker to make their presence felt when commentator and former West Indies fast bowler Michael Holding took that mike and delivered his best yet, an impassioned take on the issue of #BlackLivesMatter, spoken with aplomb. 

It was commendable on part of the broadcasters to give time and space to address the burning issue and all three of Holding, commentator and former English cricketer, Ebony-Rainford Brent, who became the first woman of colour to represent English Cricket team and former England captain, Nasser Hussain, who talked about being born with an Indian dad and an English mom, and how he was called names because of his last name. Later that day, cricket was in unison, when all the players, the support staff and the umpires took a knee in support of the cause.

West Indies players, England batsmen and the umpires take a knee, in support of the #BlackLivesMatter  West Indies
West Indies players, England batsmen and the umpires take a knee, in support of the #BlackLivesMatter (Credits: West Indies Cricket)

The match was talked about a lot more before it even started, that too with a delay of three hours due to wet conditions. Ben Stokes, stand-in captain in Joe Root’s absence, surprised everyone, first by opting to bat in such conditions, and then leaving Stuart Broad in favour of Mark Wood, giving reason of picking players according to the pitch.

And, as expected, the ball talked first, even before the bat got to open its mouth. West Indies took an unsuccessful review on a marginal call by the umpire, when Rory Burns offered no shot to a slightly incoming delivery from Kemar Roach. In the next over, Dom Sibley, misjudged an incoming delivery off Shannon Gabriel, which did the rest of the work of hitting the top-of off stump. The first day could see only 17 overs bowled, with England surviving without any more casualties. 

The next day, which also saw interruptions and an early end to the day’s play due to rain and bad light respectively. The day had much more cricket on display and commanding bowling performance from the visitors. The day started with Gabriel sending both the overnight batsmen packing and ended with the firm and assertive pair of Kraigg Brathwaite and Shai Hope on the crease.

West Indies skipper, who is also the No. 1 Test all-rounder in the World, just proved why he is such a revered player in the format, again, by accounting for half a dozen English batsmen. English skipper on the other hand, before becoming one of his counterpart’s victims, was the only one who showed some intent. 

Whereas, Windies batsmen, took benefit of the improving conditions and slowing pitch and made the best use of it, by not just getting runs but through important partnerships. Brathwaite led with a gritty 65, with contributions from the wicket-keeper batsman Shane Dowrich, Roston Chase and Shamarh Brooks. They ended with a lead of 114, and missed an opportunity to bat England out of the game as they lost their last three wickets within 12 runs.

West Indies  West Indies
West Indies (Picture credits: Scroll.in)

England came out to play the remaining 10 overs on the third day to negotiate safely, making just 15 runs. Both Burns and Sibley batted with great maturity to bat through the first bursts of Roach and Gabriel, playing 36 overs. Burns got out to off-spinner Roston Chase, which wasn’t a wicket-taking delivery, short and wide outside the off-stump and he could only get it far into the hands of John Cambell standing at backward point. 

Chase took another one, contributing in another failure of Joe Denly, who stands in a spot of bother to save his place in the eleven when Joe Root comes back in the next game and Zak Crawley playing a little gem of a knock of 76 to most likely be on the team sheet at the Old Trafford. 

Opener Dom Sibley too scored a half-century before getting out twice in the same over, first when it was ruled a no-ball when Gabriel’s shoe sole of the stretched foot could stay just enough on the popping crease, but the umpire ruled it in favour of the batsman. Relieved Sibley, two balls later, guided a delivery down the leg-side into the hands of diving Dowrich. 

At 249-3, with set Stokes and Crawley, England was looking at a lead of anything above 250 before the match-turning session of play took place. Holder got his counterpart again, this time getting him to poke at an away going delivery straight to gully. In the next over, Alzarri Joseph joined the party, taking Crawley’s catch off his own bowling. 

Four overs later, he got Jos Buttler to swipe against the incoming delivery, leaving his stumps into shambles. And, just before Dom Bess and Ollie Pope started to build again, Gabriel bowled an absolute peach of a delivery, first to get Bess and then Pope in the same over, before removing the tail, the next morning, thereby his fifth of the innings and ninth for the match.

Shannon Gabriel - Player of the match  West Indies
Shannon Gabriel - Player of the match (Credits: West Indies Cricket)

Needing 200 off 88 overs till the close of the play, it wasn’t the best starts to the innings, when Campbell walked off the pitch, after getting hit on his toe. And, it was Jofra’s turn to prove the naysayers wrong, removing Brathwaite and Brooks in quick succession, before Blackwood took initiative. This was the most unlike-Blackwood innings by him, taking his time, taking calculative risks, so that Chase could hold on to the other end before the latter received some chin music from Archer and could only manage to glove the unplayable bouncer into the hands of the keeper.

But, Blackwood continued onto his merry way, before losing it all, just before the finish line and played into the hands of mid-off, not before scoring a career-saving 95, maintaining his excellent track record against England. And, it was just a matter of time, before injury-return Campbell and skipper Jason Holder finished it off, to cap off a successful run chase in a well-fought game.

While Jason Holder, termed the fourth day’s play as his best day in test cricket, Ben Stokes, on the other hand, stood by both of his decisions and rued the first innings batting performance to be the main reason for the loss, at the post-match interviews performed with social distancing. Stokes even said that he would have been upset, had Stuart Broad not shown his frustration after being left out, in an interview with the Sky Sports team.

Not just for purists, Test cricket is the cricket in its most pure, original and raw form for every cricket-loving fan, where it’s not just ball and the bat, minds and techniques also have to be kept in check. For most of the world still struggling from the pandemic, an escape was the need of the hour and what better than a well-fought Test match going to the fifth day with all three results possible.

Cover picture credits: Cricbuzz