By Ned Vessey
At one point it seemed as though there wouldn’t be any cricket at all this summer, though England’s fixtures have produced famous wins, high drama, and plenty of talking points. The Test series against West Indies and Pakistan and the ODIs against Ireland – all comprised of three games – have taken place behind closed doors in biosecure bubbles.
At first the surreal sight of some of the world’s finest cricketers stepping onto the outfield as Jerusalem boomed around an empty stadium, as well as wickets and centuries being celebrated in an atmosphere more redolent of a village game, was what dominated focus. However, talk of socially-distanced celebrations, empty seats, and the absence of beer snakes were soon overtaken by the gripping cricket on offer.
The summer began in powerful fashion as both teams took the knee in support of Black Lives Matter, before Kemar Roach bowled the first ball of the summer to England’s Rory Burns. West Indies showed why they have the potential to challenge the world’s best, with a strong performance in the First Test at the Rose Bowl in Southampton, beating England by four wickets. By the series end, however, the Windies bowlers, in particular Shannon Gabriel – so quick and hostile at Southampton – cut weary and jaded figures as England dominated.
The Windies’ tailing off can be partly explained by a long spell in the bio-bubble, as well as little recovery time amidst a relentless schedule, though their batting needs to find greater consistency if they wish to compete more often. It was Ben Stokes (who else?) and the obdurate Dom Sibley who showed the West Indies batsman how it was done, the pair making 176 and 120 respectively in the Second Test.
Stokes’ knock demonstrated what a complete batsman he has become, his hundred a textbook in how to compile a Test match innings. Sibley, in contrast, stayed resolutely in first gear. Faced with 372 balls in his time at the crease, the 24-year-old has received unfair criticism for the speed with he scores – though his solidity and willingness to occupy the crease is precisely what England have lacked ever since Andrew Strauss retired in 2012. Stokes’ quickfire 78* in the second innings was an added bonus, and gave England ample time to skittle the Windies for 198 and win the Second Test by 113 runs.
Stuart Broad, furious at his omission from the first Test, showed his value to the team with three wickets in each innings and chipped in with a collector’s piece of 62 off 45 balls.
Burns and Sibley combined for a century partnership in England’s second innings; after struggling so long to find a steady opening pair, England finally have one. They set the platform for a quickfire innings from Joe Root as England declared, setting West Indies an unlikely 399 to win. The tourist duly imploded for 129, with Broad in the wickets again, and the quietly excellent Chris Woakes taking a five-wicket haul as England won by 269 runs.
As well as a dependable opening pair, England are well stocked in the fast-bowling department too, with Jimmy Anderson, Mark Wood, Sam Curran, Archer, Woakes and Broad all vying for places. While England may not know what their best team is yet, this series proved that they have a strong and talented pool of players to choose from.
As the Windies series finished, three ODI games began against Ireland. England fielded a completely different set of players, but unlike the Test team they did not learn a great deal about them. The exception was Sam Billings, who played two excellent innings as England won the first and second games, both times recovering from wobbles to chase down the targets Ireland had set them. Meanwhile, Jonny Bairstow, Eoin Morgan, Adil Rashid and David Willey all demonstrated their class at various points, though James Vince failed to impress, and will surely be moved on when the likes of Root and Stokes return.
A little like West Indies, Ireland showed their potential without finding consistency, although they finally came to the party in the third ODI, chasing down 329 thanks to superb batting from Paul Stirling and Andrew Balbirnie. The final match was the highlight of an otherwise fairly lowkey series in which England found out little they did not already know, and even less about what they wanted to know.
It was back to red-ball cricket after that, as the Test side took on Pakistan at Old Trafford. Under Azhar Ali, Pakistan possess a batting line-up of much greater solidity than that of West Indies, and so it proved as Shan Masood overcame his previous struggles against English bowling to make 156. His innings was characterised by strong judgement, ably supported by the beautiful strokeplay of the classy Babar Azam. Shadab Khan chipped in with 45, as he and Shan ran excellently between the wickets to take Pakistan to 326.
England were subject to world-class swing and spin from Pakistan’s bowling attack, as the hosts struggled to 219. Ollie Pope was in the runs again, but England generally struggled as Mohammad Abbas and Yasir Shah, in particular, demonstrated why they are so highly regarded. Also on display was the 17 year-old bowler Naseem Shah, who reached speeds of 90mph and produced a brute of a ball to dismiss Pope. Certainly one to watch for the future.
Pakistan struggled in their second innings, leaving England with a chase of 277. On a tricky pitch, it seemed a big ask to begin with, and even more so after Dom Sibley and Joe Root were dismissed after making solid starts. At 117/5 England looked dead and buried, however the under-pressure Jos Buttler was joined by Chris Woakes and the pair began to counterattack, aware that a ball with their name on it was likely to come along sooner or later.
Buttler has been rightly criticised for his keeping – he made a catalogue of errors during this Test – but he is in the side ahead of the likes of Ben Foakes on the basis of his batting. He showed just what he is capable of, playing arguably his finest Test knock as he and Woakes counterattacked, consolidated, and almost reached the finish line before Buttler fell for 75.
In the company of Broad and then Bess, Chris Woakes, so often in Stokes’ shadow, took England home: a thick edge squirting over the slips to take Woakes to an unbeaten 84 and England to 277/7. Comparisons were drawn with Headingley 2019, but this was a somewhat different situation, and produced its own particular type of nerve-rattling tension.
An excellent 72 for Pakistan’s Mohammad Rizwan, as well as a high-quality display of bowling from Abbas was literally overshadowed by poor weather conditions and the continuation of the debate over bad light. The players were withdrawn, somewhat farcically, making this match England’s shortest in terms of overs bowled since 1987. When elbows were bumped on a draw England were 110/4, in response to Pakistan’s 236.
Regardless, it has been a joy to have any cricket at all. Great credit must be given to all the players from each nation, but especially those from the West Indies and Pakistan for putting themselves into the bio-bubble and providing a distraction from a dismal year.
Whether it is the beauty of Jermaine Blackwood’s cover drive, the skill of Mohammad Abbas or the brilliance of Ben Stokes, the international fixtures this summer have offered plenty of moments to live in the memory, irrespective of the wider result. In a year that hasn’t been the greatest for Planet Earth, cricket has once again demonstrated the value of sport and how much we need it. Let’s hope that the final Test against Pakistan, as well as the limited overs games against them and Australia can bring more of the same.
Image: Phil Guest via Creative Commons