That cricket is a game of glorious uncertainties is, though never irrelevant, a very tired cliché. That Test cricket is the most severe examination a player can get, though not clichéd, is not exactly new.
West Indies did learn a new cricketing truth today, however. It is that, even when you perform at very high levels, you are not guaranteed success in the examination that is Test cricket in England—only the very best, class or form, contrive to ace it.
On day two of the third Test currently under way in Old Trafford, the touring West Indians did not do too much wrong. Nevertheless, if they are to avoid defeat and not surrender the Wisden Trophy to Joe Root’s Englishmen, they will need a huge helping hand.
It may come, if the meteorologists are to be believed, down from the heavens on Monday. But because even the cricketing gods are more likely to help those who help themselves, it will first have to come from the West Indian captain, Jason Holder. Today.
As a West Indies fan, I fervently hope that the skipper’s ego will be our salvation today. I mean that in a good way.
I hope he wants so much not to surrender the Wisden Trophy, which is being contested for the last time. I hope he summoned a team meeting yesterday evening and again this morning and read the riot act to the whole team—especially the bowlers who are still to come to the crease.
I hope that he has stressed how much more important it now is to retain possession of the trophy. And I hope he has made clear to them what the fans expect and spelled out for them just how he and the lower order must keep England at bay.
Our focus, I expect he has announced, has to be the asterisks and the parentheses. No more, no less.
Not sure what that means? The reference is to the new normal.
The fans are not there in person to cheer the team on and encourage them to give of their best. But the fans are glued to their televisions, sending them positive vibes from Port-of-Spain, Providence and Port Morant, Speightstown, Soufrière and Salisbury and from all the other Caribbean towns and villages.
Since the four-wicket win in the first Test, time is on the West Indies’ side. That is why the fans really don’t care how many runs anybody makes. All they care about is how many balls each batsman faces (the parentheses) and that each strives to occupy the crease for as long as possible, surviving to face the next ball (the asterisk).
If each makes only 20 runs but faces 200 balls, we are cooking with gas!
And that is where there is good news. Not one of the six WI batsmen dismissed yesterday gave his hand away. John Campbell, successfully taking the fight to England, fell to a snorter which would have taken either his head or his wicket. He made the right choice.
Shai Hope too, carrying the weight of non-performance on his broad shoulders, got an edge to one which you need plenty luck to get your bat out of the way of.
Kraigg Brathwaite, Shamarh Brooks, Roston Chase and Jermaine Blackwood all played down the wrong line. The first two got edges, the last two missed, one being struck on the pad and one having his stumps shattered.
All, it is clear to me, were mindful of the mission and the message: keep the focus on the asterisk and the parentheses.
Nevertheless, as day three dawns, we find ourselves still with a lot to do. Only 33 runs are needed to make England bat again. Holder and Shane Dowrich are still at the crease with only the bowlers to come.
We have to hope the skipper is aware of how huge a part of the responsibility for our predicament is to be laid at his feet. Having selected the extra spinner, why would he have batted second, meaning that we potentially bat last?
And when we had the chance to offset that error by restricting England to a modest score, he once more proved powerless to stop a mid-morning haemorrhage yesterday. The follow-on should already have been saved.
From the solidity of 258 for 4 at the end of the opening day, Root’s men were once more allowed to rebound. Stuart Broad’s swashbuckling, boundary-filled 62 off 45 balls took them to a solid 369.
In the middle of the Broad blitzkrieg, Michael Holding let his exasperation show.
“Have a look at the field,” he said, “and tell me what is the plan to get Stuart Broad out.”
The response came later from former England captain Nasser Hussain.
“Holder,” he offered, “loses the plot when he loses control.”
And there presumably was a lot of sage head-shaking among the cognoscenti when Andrew Strauss suggested that success in these situations required you ‘to be a bit unorthodox’.
But there is good news. Holder has a chance to atone. He and Dowrich have spectacularly pulled West Indian chataignes out of the fire before, albeit at home in Barbados.
Today, we don’t need spectacular; we’ll take the 33 runs however they come, in singles, leg-byes, no-balls—matters not. And we’ll take whatever lagniappe we can get as well.
We have been here before. Just last week. And Ben Stokes grabbed all the honours. And with them the number one spot in the ICC all-rounders rankings.
So there is more good news. Asked by one of his co-commentators why he retired with 249 Test wickets to his name, Holding replied with a question.
“What is the difference between 250 and 249?”
And then he added that he was completely unaware of how many wickets he had taken and really did not care about the number anyway.
Holder has scored almost 2,000 Test runs and has taken over 100 wickets. Of the 32 matches he has played for the West Indies as captain, his team has won 10 and lost 17.
Wanna bet he is acutely aware of the difference between 17 and 18? And no less acutely aware that only the very best contrive to ace the England Test test?