For years, whenever England have struggled in the field, the call has been for pace. Whether struggling for penetration at Chennai or Lord’s or Adelaide, the suggestion has always been that, with a bit more pace, England would be able to extract more life from the surface and have the ingredient their attack has been lacking.
Well, here they had plenty of pace. Indeed, Mark Wood produced what is thought to be the quickest display of bowling by an England player across an innings at home in the past 15 years. And what did it earn him? One tailend wicket for 74 runs.
He wasn’t alone, either. Jofra Archer, we know, can bowl as fast as anyone. And while here he tended to concentrate on control – this surface hasn’t offered a great deal of help for pace – there were still some quick deliveries across his 22 overs. He finished wicketless.
It was telling that Ben Stokes, like so many England captains before him, relied on James Anderson to deliver the most overs. Anderson is 37 now and generally operates at a speed just above 80 mph. But, such is his control and skill, he remains the most dangerous bowler more often than not. And while he was not, by his high standards, quite at his best, he still delivered 11 maidens in his 25 overs. England’s three other seamers delivered 10 between them.
It’s no coincidence that the most successful bowler in the match to date, Jason Holder, operates at a similar pace to Anderson. He derived his success by pitching the ball a bit fuller than the England bowlers and extracting movement – especially swing – that the hosts could not replicate.
But England have longed for this pace. For years they have been on the wrong end of attacks containing quality fast bowlers. Now, at last, they have some firepower of their own and they couldn’t resist the temptation to play them. They were like the man taking his new sports car out in the snow; or desperate to use his new skis in mid-summer. They haven’t exactly picked the wrong attack. But they might have picked the wrong attack for the conditions.
England’s hearts probably sank when they opened their curtains on Friday morning. After batting in grim, overcast conditions, they were greeted by the sort of bright, sunny morning that suggested batting could be easier. But that is the risk you take when you choose to bat first in the gloom and England would have hoped to have an attack to cope with most conditions.
As it transpired, it looked just a little ill-balanced. Another old-school England seamer – the likes of Matthew Hoggard, perhaps, or even Chris Rushworth or Alan Richardson – might have proved the perfect foil to Anderson. It’s surely too early to jump to conclusions but maybe, just as England’s football team rarely found a way to accommodate Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard in the same side, their cricket team might find the best use of Wood and Archer is by rotating them?
There will be those who suggest Stuart Broad would have made all the difference. And it is true that Broad, at this stage of his career, with his determination to make batsmen play, might have been well-suited to this surface. But we have to be careful not to make the same mistake we have with pace: presume that quick and easy solutions would make all the difference. Broad has, no doubt, had a magnificent career. But in his most recent 28 home Tests – that’s a period going back almost five years – he has taken only one five-wicket haul.
England also have to be careful not to over compensate in Manchester. If conditions there look as if they may favour pace above seam – and they may well – it will probably pay to stick with these bowlers. Their fault may have been playing an attack ideally suited for Brisbane in Southampton.
There are other options within the England squad, too. For all Broad’s virtues, he is another right-arm fast medium bowler. Sam Curran, with his left-arm angle and ability to swing the ball, might offer more variation. You could, at a push, even make a case for playing him in place of one of the batsmen. His Test batting average (27.34) is only about two below that of Joe Denly (29.55).
But whoever plays, whatever their pace, they have to bowl with more accuracy than England managed here. It wasn’t that they were awful, by any means. But compared to the West Indies’ bowlers, they were just a little short, just a little leg side and just a little unable to build or sustain pressure.
“Obviously you need control,” Anderson said. “We saw West Indies bowl well. They had a couple of bowlers who offered control in Holder and Roach and that gave the quicker guys the freedom to bowl fast. You need a balance.”
In many ways, Wood’s performance was admirable. His pace hardly dropped in his 22 overs. Right to the end, he was passing 90 mph regularly. But by bowling too short, he failed to generate the movement that proved so dangerous for Holder. On a different surface – maybe the surface in Manchester; maybe even the fourth-innings surface here – Wood will be a huge asset.
Archer, too, was only slightly off his game. He squandered one wicket through overstepping – an infuriating waste, really – and also strayed on to the batsmen’s legs more often than he will like. But his real issue was struggling to generate the movement that might have been expected of him.
And, while England may feel they allowed West Indies to get a few above par, it probably was only a few. England’s first innings score of 204 has, not for the first time, asked a little too much of their bowlers. In both innings, a score of around 250 might be considered par.
In truth, West Indies have so far batted and bowled better than England. Kraigg Brathwaite played later and straighter than England’s top order while Shane Dowrich, despite never looking comfortable against the short ball, battled hard in contributing a vital half-century. The discipline and skill with which they evaded the short ball has perhaps made England’s bowling effort seem rather less good than it was.
So this was a slightly dispiriting start to life with Wood and Archer in tandem. But there will be other surfaces, many of them, when the pair are the perfect solution. But just because you’ve bought a fine new hat, it doesn’t mean you need to wear it in the shower.