“A BIT of a gut call,” said Joe Root of his controversial move to leave out Stuart Broad, a man with 433 Test wickets to his name.
Never let it be said that Root does not have the stomach to take tough decisions, the England captain preferring Sam Curran over Broad for the opening day of the three-match series against the West Indies.
It was a debatable decision –criticised by some, celebrated by others – and ultimately a bold and courageous choice.
It was one that underscored the fact that nobody – not even England’s second-highest wicket-taker in Test cricket, and the 10th-highest of all-time – is too big/important to watch from the sidelines, even on islands which have traditionally favoured practitioners of pace.
Broad watched twice from the sidelines in Sri Lanka before Christmas, but that was to make room for spinners on turning pitches. This decision highlighted England’s increasing strength among their quicker men, not to mention the fact that Curran, the precocious 20-year-old, has made himself devilishly difficult to discard.
Root made another bold choice in preferring his Yorkshire team-mate Adil Rashid to fellow spinner Jack Leach and looks like a leader increasingly prepared to act on his hunches.
Whether those hunches bear fruit in this case will be borne out by time; on an unusually sedate Barbados surface, West Indies reached 264-8 after winning the toss, the day tilting England’s way when they struck four times in the last 10 overs with the second new ball, the hosts collapsing from 240-4 to the timeless James Anderson.
The make-up of the England team now looks flexible and fluid, as it will need to be in this cricketing year of years. With the Ashes to come after the 50-over World Cup, followed by tours to New Zealand and South Africa, there are candidates for both the Test and one-day XIs who scarcely deserve to be kicking their heels, with Chris Woakes another in Barbados left disappointed.
What West Indies would give for such problems can well be imagined, for the old kings of world cricket are now eighth in the world. Why, there might even have been the temptation yesterday to tap Sir Garry Sobers, now aged 82, on the shoulder as he presented opening batsman John Campbell with his first Test cap while whispering: “Hey, Sir Garry, fancy a game?”
Such have been West Indies’ batting problems of late, Sobers, the greatest all-rounder of them all, could scarcely have fared worse, but the hosts made a confident start to proceedings.
Only one wicket fell in the first session – Campbell lbw for 44 from 53 balls as he swept at Moeen Ali – and the score had reached 126-1 after lunch when Ben Stokes clawed things back with two wickets in five balls on his 50th appearance, Kraigg Brathwaite edging to Root at slip and Darren Bravo lbw all ends up on his return to Test cricket after an absence of more than two years.
Brathwaite scored 40: the same number of runs that he managed in four innings and two County Championship appearances for Yorkshire at the end of 2017. The 26-year-old played far better yesterday than he did for the White Rose, defending resolutely and attacking the mainly ineffective Moeen, but, as with opening partner Campbell, failed to build on a promising start.
The same could be said of Shai Hope, with whom Brathwaite played a star role in West Indies’ five-wicket victory at Headingley in 2017. Hope, who became the first man to score two hundreds in a match at Headingley as West Indies chased 322, has not managed a Test hundred since, and he rather passed up the opportunity of another one here, falling for 57 when he played away from his body and was caught behind off an inside-edge off Anderson to leave the home side 174-4.
It was just reward for Anderson, who took three of the wickets with the second new ball on his way to 4-33 from 24 overs, and he should have had Shimron Hetmyer caught at cover by Jos Buttler when the batsman was three and the score 178-4.
As it was, Shimron Hetmyer, a name that just sounds West Indian if you say it aloud, frustrated England in a fifth-wicket stand of 66 in 18 overs with Roston Chase, a name that sounds like a village tucked away off Yorkshire’s A64.
There was relief for England, as well as rapture, when Anderson got Chase with the new ball, the batsman nibbling to Root at slip after also failing to capitalise on a fine half-century (54 from 118 deliveries).
Shane Dowrich got into a horrible tangle with a short one from Anderson that he popped towards the slips; Jason Holder patted back a return catch to Anderson, and Stokes claimed his third wicket – and Root his third slip catch – when Kemar Roach was undone by a menacing lifter.
Hetmyer entertained royally on his way to 56 not out from 60 balls, but the day was an advert for Anderson and England’s perseverance.