Test cricket returns with a hard fought contest

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Cricket and Test cricket returned after a 144-day gap owing to COVID-19 that continues to cause havoc across the globe. The prelude to the England-Windies Test series was something not too celebratory. The media glare and attention shifted to Michael Holding’s honest, emotional speech about the “Black Lives Matter” campaign and what that signifies for him.

The return of cricket or test cricket was very uplifting as the match had all the elements that make for an excellent Test match. Up until the tea session on day five, everyone was not sure who would win the game. Such is the beauty of cricket and Test cricket! The drama of a match going into the last session of day five is something that can’t be replicated.

Firstly, one must applaud the West Indies team for coming to England and amidst the COVID-19 outbreak, and play the three-match series. Of course, all the safety precautions and guidelines were followed to ensure the match went off smoothly.

Full credit to the ground staff at the Ageas Bowl for providing a good pitch(one that was a tad on the slower side) which provided for a fair and close contest between the two sides. This ensured a smashing return of international cricket post the unprecedented break owing to the Coronavirus outbreak.

On the surface, it didn’t look like cricket had returned after a gap of 144 days. Apart from the obvious omission of fans from the stadium, the action on the 22 yards did all the talking and made all the right noises.

For many of us, who have followed Pakistan’s home games in the UAE since the past decade, this sort of reception for a Test match is not a new sight. A sad reality of the popularity of the longest form of the game.

It was not about getting used to the empty stands but more about the curiosity to see how players from both sides would cope post their extended forced hiatus from the international circuit.

Test Cricket’s return had fans like me curious with regards to the adaptability of the cricketers post an unprecedented break

How will the bowlers fare? Will, they break-down? Will the batsmen see the bowl well and adapt accordingly? These were some of the questions and doubts which could have propped up in many of our minds as the Test match was going to start.

But the match in itself was the purest form of the game playing out at its best. England and Windies are two sides that are very similar heading into this Test match. Both have fantastic all-rounders leading their teams(Ben Stokes and Jason Holder respectively) and both the teams have fragile and weak middle orders and have some outstanding fast bowlers.

It was not a smooth initiation for Ben Stokes as he took over the reigns from Joe Root as skipper in Test cricket

Ben Stokes who was skipper of the England Test team for the first time, opted to bat on a gloomy and overcast day at Southampton. A questionable decision to bat first but one that the Windies bowlers made the most of.

The #1 all-rounder in Test Cricket currently, Jason Holder wielded his magic and dismantled the hosts with a magnificent spell where he ended up with figures of 6/42 in 20 overs. England’s batsmen looked all the sea against the visitor’s pace quartet- Jason Holder, Shannon Gabriel, Kemar Roach and Alzarri Joseph.

With just 204 runs on the board, the hosts needed to pull off something special to curtail the men from the Caribbean islands. Jofra Archer proved to be very rusty and looked out of place on his return. It was a team effort led by Ben Stokes who grabbed four wickets to ensure that the visitors didn’t march ahead too much.

Still, a lead of 114 runs is formidable especially against a bowling attack that was breathing fire. Shanon Gabriel was marvellous right through the game- match figures of 9/137 speak for itself. He just stuck to his attacking brand of fast bowling which worked wonders. England did put a reasonably better performance in the second innings scoring 313 runs to set a target of 200 runs.

Jermaine Blackwood’s knock of 95 helped Windies go 1-0 up in the series against England

It was a chase that depended on one batsman playing the anchor role. Windies have batsmen like Kraigg Brathwaite, Shai Hope, Roston Chase who could play that role. But it was youngster Jermaine Blackwood who put his hand upon this occasion.

A measured, well-paced and controlled knock of 95 runs from Blackwood ensured that his team got over the finishing line, despite Archer’s unplayable deliveries getting other batsmen out around him.

The enormity of the achievement is something that will present a clearer picture. Windies are the only team to chase 200 runs twice in this century in England and they maintain their record of never losing to a target of 200 or under.

The ‘new normal’ which includes no fans in stadiums, muted celebrations and a general lull as compared to the usual was completely forgotten owing to the quality of cricket on display at the Ageas Bowl, Southampton.

All cricket fans who were deprived of any live-action since the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak, lapped up the Test match played between England and West Indies.

The viewership of this game on TV is indeed promising and hopefully, it would continue the same way right through the series. The response was so overwhelming that the match highlights of a couple of days saw over 6 million views!

The very fact that there has been no live international cricket since the end of March this year meant people who generally stay away from watching Test cricket and the section of fans who want more of T20Is and IPL also to witness this closely fought game.

One would hope the interest levels remains the same as England are scheduled to take on Pakistan in three Tests and three T20Is post their current series against the Windies.

There is still a lot of uncertainty surrounding India’s return to international cricket, so that should help in getting more viewership and interest for cricket that will be played in England in the coming weeks.

England will be bolstered with the return of their regular skipper Joe Root for the second Test that starts from 16th July 2020. But that won’t deter the visitors who will be extremely confident post their historic win at Southampton.

It’s truly fantastic and therapeutic to see cricket back, and that too in such a fitting manner where the result of the game was decided on the last session on day five.

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