So far, England’s tour of the Caribbean has been one for the purists. Ten days of attritional cricket, interspersed with flashes of hopeful flamboyance, and nothing yet to show in the series ledger for either side’s efforts. Could that be about to change, as Grenada prepares to host a Test match for only the fourth time in the ground’s 23-year international history? The rumours from the Spice Island are of spicier times in store … but it’s probably prudent to temper one’s expectations in light of what we’ve witnessed so far.
Whatever happens in this final Test, both sides can already take heart from the competitive spirit that they’ve shown in this series. West Indies remain without a Test victory in 10 attempts since February 2021, while England’s current record reads one win in 16, so for neither team to have yet racked up another loss has to count as progress on both fronts.
For West Indies, their captain, Kraigg Brathwaite, has personified the competitive zeal that the region seeks to reignite in their Test cricket. His extraordinary refusal to buckle in Barbados has bagged him a place in the pantheon of batting barnacles – Geoffrey Boycott and Shivnarine Chanderpaul, among others, would have been proud of his indefatigable performance, even if Boycott, in his Telegraph column, was rightly concerned about the tedious nature of the Bridgetown pitch – an anti-competitive mud-strip that did little to elevate the contest beyond a grim pursuit of statistics.
It was a fleeting glimpse on both occasions, however. Despite Saqib Mahmood’s impressive debut in Barbados, and some lively turn and bounce for Jack Leach when armed with the new ball, England haven’t yet shown they have the weapons to transcend pitches of such tedium – unlike, say, the startling inroads that Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins have been able to make on similarly flat decks in Pakistan.
For that reason, while it’s true that a handful of bore-draws in themselves cannot threaten the future of an inherently insecure format – one whose death has been predicted for 145 years and counting – the issue of substandard Test pitches is not one that should be allowed to be brushed off as an anomaly.
By all accounts these are not the surfaces that CWI ordered – coming into the series, after all, West Indies arguably had the more threatening roster of fast bowlers in their ranks and therefore would have wished for more pace and bounce to work with. It appears that the final decision was left in the hands of the local boards in Antigua and Barbados, both of whom valued the guarantee of five full days of Barmy Army patronage over the guarantee of a result. If the Grenada authorities can be persuaded to place more value on the spectacle than the bottom line, then who knows, they might also lure a few disenchanted supporters over to their shores next time around.
Away from the pitch politics, there’s plenty at stake as England’s tentative rebuild reaches its first of what will surely have to be many mini-peaks. In Lawrence and Zak Crawley, they have two young guns who can stride into the 2022 home season with renewed confidence after last year’s challenges; in Joe Root and Ben Stokes, the team’s most important batting pillars are looking sturdy once more after their wobbles in the Ashes, while Jonny Bairstow’s renewed red-ball focus looks here to stay as well.
But there’s plenty about this team that isn’t yet where it needs to be. Alex Lees could do with at least a medium-sized innings to firm up his status at the top of the order, while Chris Woakes’ series-long toothlessness has done little but reaffirm the overseas suspicions that have dogged him for most of his career. With Ollie Robinson’s fitness issues an underlying concern, and Mark Wood’s elbow injury leaving England more bereft of 90mph options than at any time since the 2017-18 Ashes, there’s been little about their seam attack that will have ushered James Anderson and Stuart Broad into an early retirement.
And then there’s the spin issue. Leach has been diligent without threatening to tear through West Indies, while the legspinner Matt Parkinson remains on the fringes, waiting for the moment to be trusted. It’s possible that chance has been and gone, however – Barbados was where England needed his ability to rip it past well-set defences, but as the management proved in Brisbane and Adelaide last winter, they are perfectly capable of picking the right team for the wrong Test. Everything will rest on how they read the pitch on Thursday morning.
West Indies, meanwhile, will surely be content with more of the same. Brathwaite stole the show in Barbados, but it’s been far from a one-man mission from his team. Nkrumah Bonner may have endured a rare quiet game in the second Test, but a week before that he was producing a similarly indomitable display in Antigua, and Jermaine Blackwood’s gutsy, and largely out-of-character, hundred at Bridgetown personified the extent to which West Indies raise their game when England are in town.
Given half a chance, West Indies’ quicks are surely gagging to show similar devotion to the cause. Both Kemar Roach and Jayden Seales have had their moments, most particularly on the first morning of the series, while the talismanic Jason Holder has had, by his standards, a quiet series against his favoured foes. If he can rediscover even a modicum of the form he showed in 2019, there’s no reason to assume that a 0-0 lockout is the upper limit of West Indies’ ambitions.
(Last five matches; most recent first)
West Indies DDLLL
In the spotlight
After his extraordinary feats of endurance in Barbados, it’s hard to look beyond Kraigg Brathwaite for a West Indies focal-point this week. When you’ve batted for a notch shy of 16 hours across two innings, to rack up 216 runs from 673 balls in a single Test match, it’s fair to presume your eye is in. Brathwaite demurred, however, when asked if West Indies would be looking to pick up their tempo going into the series decider. He’s quite happy letting England come to him, asking questions that their bowlers struggled to answer as they were kept in the field for 187.5 overs in the first innings last week. And on his watch, West Indies have given themselves every chance of extending their proud unbeaten record at home against England.
West Indies have stuck with the same 13-man squad for the third match running, which is a vote of confidence from Desmond Haynes, the convenor of selectors, after a series in which the batters – Brathwaite in particular – have been willing to dig deep for the cause. There’s a possibility of a rejig for this final match, however, with Kyle Mayers on hand to step in for Shamarh Brooks, whose top-score in a bat-dominated series has been 39. There’s also the thorny issue of workload to consider. Jayden Seales, for instance, has ploughed through 65 overs for his seven wickets in the series. Given the rapid turnaround between Tests, and that he is still a work in progress at the age of 20, it may be prudent to give him a rest and hand a debut to Anderson Phillip, the uncapped Trinidad fast bowler.
West Indies (possible) 1 Kraigg Brathwaite (capt), 2 John Campbell, 3 Nkrumah Bonner, 4 Kyle Mayers/Shamarh Brooks, 5 Jermaine Blackwood, 6 Jason Holder, 7 Joshua da Silva (wk), 8 Alzarri Joseph, 9 Kemar Roach, 10 Veerasammy Permaul, 11 Jayden Seales/Anderson Phillip
Plenty to ponder for England in the bowling stakes, after a series of flux in which injury and illness has forced their hand in both Tests, and maybe taught them more about their personnel than they might have anticipated learning. Robinson missed each of the first two Tests with a back spasm, but is expected to be fit for this one, and if so, he surely comes back into the reckoning in place of the sadly ineffectual Woakes, whose role in overseas Tests is surely now at an end. Craig Overton, too, has recovered from the bout of sickness that afflicted him in Barbados. He will probably return in place of Matt Fisher, who let no-one down on debut and whose chance will come again before long. Saqib Mahmood, the likeliest of England’s quicks in that match, looks to be a banker. Whether England bite the bullet and opt to give Parkinson a debut will depend on how they expect the pitch to play. Early signs are that it will be quicker than previously witnessed, although it could hardly be slower…
England 1 Alex Lees, 2 Zak Crawley, 3 Joe Root (capt), 4 Dan Lawrence, 5 Ben Stokes, 6 Jonny Bairstow, 7 Ben Foakes (wk), 8 Ollie Robinson, 9 Craig Overton, 10 Saqib Mahmood, 11 Jack Leach
Stats and trivia
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket