“WE’RE going to have to have one of our greatest days to have any chance.”
So said England’s Moeen Ali as he pondered the towering extent of the challenge in Barbados.
Going into day three, that challenge was best summed up by the sobering scoreboard.
West Indies, 127-6 in their second innings, led by 339, already a match-winning position, after England had been routed for 77 in reply to 289.
Come the end of another hot and draining Caribbean day, the sort that could turn a teetotal bowler into a raging alcoholic, England could reflect not on one of their greatest days, alas, but on one of their most frustrating and fruitless.
Just about everything that could have gone wrong for the tourists did go wrong; why, even the new golden boy of English cricket, Ben Foakes, dropped a catch behind the stumps, albeit a difficult one diving to his left when Jason Holder tickled a ball from Ben Stokes down the leg-side.
To say that it barely mattered, however, was no exaggeration.
At the time, Holder had 151 runs to his name, and the West Indies score stood at 343-6 as we approached the end of two wicket-less sessions – that after 18 wickets had fallen on day two, which felt like a lifetime ago or else the product of a particularly vivid imagination.
By the time that Holder eventually declared on 415-6 in the 12th over after the tea break, immediately on reaching the first double century of his career, England required the small matter of 628 runs to win – 210 more than has ever been made to a win a Test match, and 87 more than has ever been made to win a first-class match.
Left with 20 overs to survive before stumps, followed by a two full days if they are to secure a draw that would feel to them like an innings victory, England battled through to 56-0, a minor triumph for the under-fire opening pair of Rory Burns and Keaton Jennings, whose every walk to the crease these days must feel akin to walking the plank.
It was the first wicket-less day’s Test cricket for, well, one month, actually, after Sri Lanka’s Kusal Mendis and Angelo Mathews repelled New Zealand in Wellington.
It was the first involving England since the famous occasion when Australia’s Geoff Marsh and Mark Taylor compiled 301 at Trent Bridge in 1989, and the sixth involving England overall.
By common consent, Holder’s decision to bat on… and on… and then on some more, was a captain displaying ruthless professionalism, rubbing England’s noses in it and grinding them down, physically and mentally, in a back-to-back series of three Tests, with the second in Antigua starting next Thursday.
However, as West Indies’ lead grew larger and larger, like Pinocchio’s nose after a particularly prolonged bout of fibbing, the cricket became increasingly dull (despite a far-from-lethargic run-rate), and of interest primarily to statisticians/long-suffering Caribbean fans.
So much so, it was grist to the mill for those who believe in the concept of four-day as opposed to five-day Tests, for Holder would have been obliged to declare much earlier had this been a four-day game and focus more urgently on the pursuit of victory rather than that of personal milestones.
As it was, he had all the time in the world to go for his double hundred and to allow his partner, Shane Dowrich, to complete his century, the pair adding 295 in 68 overs, the third-highest seventh-wicket partnership in Tests.
The Bajan duo, the closest of friends, batted as well as their figures would suggest, Holder striking 202 from 229 balls with 23 fours and eight sixes, and Dowrich plundering 116 from 224 deliveries with 11 fours and one six.
For England, Stokes shouldered a sapping amount of work (25 overs on top of his 25.3 in the first innings), while Yorkshire’s Adil Rashid delivered just nine overs, with Holder taking the leg-spinner downtown regularly as well as to the cleaners in a cricketing sense.
Joe Root, in fact, was England’s best spinner, the captain throwing in some newly-practised leg-breaks to go with his usual off-spinners.
Indeed, Root would have broken the seventh-wicket stand at 132 and dismissed Dowrich for 62 had umpire Chris Gaffaney upheld an lbw appeal, but England had no reviews left to overturn what replays showed was an incorrect decision, with the ball on a collision course with the batsman’s leg stump.
Holder, who began the day on seven and reached his hundred from 99 balls, was reprieved not just by Foakes off Stokes, but also by Burns off Jennings, when he skied the latter towards the covers on 127.
Burns, running back, grassed the chance, getting a finger-end to it but just failing to cling on, something that he hopes does not become a metaphor for his batting place.