The finale to the Third Test between the West Indies and England at the Antigua Recreation Ground was as exciting as it could have been. One more wicket was required for England to pull off a series-levelling victory, and men were crowded around the bat.
The light was fading and the last pair of batsmen had conspired to hold out for 10 overs.
Being offered the opportunity to come off for bad light, the West Indian tail-enders leaped for joy in celebration of their achievement. In the context of both match and series, it was a superb result for them.
Yet immediately after play, talk from the likes of Sir Ian Botham was about how England should have declared earlier on the fourth day; how it was too tentative for Andrew Strauss to have put James Anderson in as nightwatchman at the close of day three and to have continued batting until halfway through the afternoon session the next day when the lead had reached 500.
To Sir Ian and those others who believe this was a mistake, I have to say that you’re wrong.
Strauss’s hand was forced by the injury to Andrew Flintoff and the illness of Steve Harmison—he could not afford to set a generous target because he didn’t know whether two of his bowlers would be in sufficient shape to defend anything smaller.
As it was, the West Indies racked up 370, whilst rarely breaking three runs an over (and even that was largely due to the indifference of the fielding side to the runs they conceded).
England’s bowlers did well, but not quite well enough.
In the final session they gave themselves the opportunity to win the match, and had 10 overs in which to take the final wicket–what more could you ask from the declaration? You would expect most Test sides to remove the final batsman within 10 overs.
Anderson’s insertion at the fall of the first wicket was a necessity. A collapse akin to that at Sabina Park to end the third day would have drawn the West Indies right back into the game, and instead of having to bat out for the draw they would have given themselves an opportunity to go for the win.
The crucial decision in this Test match was not the point of declaration, but the decision not to enforce the follow-on. This too was not a mistake by the England captain, but a necessity, given the lack of bowlers available to him.
If Anderson or Stuart Broad could have put their hands up and committed to bowling nine or ten overs each with the new ball on the third evening, Strauss would have had the chance to enforce the follow-on, but both bowlers were exhausted.
This isn’t to point the finger of failure at the two bowlers. Neither is a senior regular in the side, and that decision should rest with the captain, but you couldn’t help but feel that Ryan Sidebottom or a 100 percent fit Flintoff would have done just that, with their experience and tenacity.
No, the draw was the result of stubborn batting by Ramnaresh Sarwan, Darren Powell, Fidel Edwards, and others, along with the missing cutting edge in the England bowling attack.
The pitch played well, on the whole, and still had great pace and carry on the final day when Broad and Flintoff were bowling. Credit needs to be given to the groundstaff at the ARG for the work they put in to ensure the match could take place.
But appropriate respect needs to be given to the players of both sides for an enthralling encounter, not approbrium for a mis-timed declaration, the use of a nightwatchman, or not forcing the follow-on. Andrew Strauss and his England team did what they could with what they had. The West Indies responded and forced the draw.