Intriguing. Interesting. Fascinating. All words often used to spruce up slightly dull cricket. But the first days' play in Kingston has been intriguing. And interesting. And good.
A slow outfield may have cramped scoring, but once England had won the toss and elected to bat there's little doubt Chris Gayle would have been happier than Andrew Strauss had you told the skippers that the visitors would finish the day at 236/5. 350 may well prove a competitive score on this pitch, though there's also every prospect that it will be flattest, and best for batting on days two and three.
Not that it was a minefield today, mind you. Who would have anticipated that there'd be nearly 50 overs of spin bowled on th first day of a Sabina Park test? While there was novelty in this, it offered another reminder that test match wickets are sadly pedestrian these days and, far too frequently, much of a muchness. A good deal of the old variety has gone. The WACA at Perth isn't what it once was and nor, clearly, is Sabina Park.
Still, Sulieman Benn bowled beautifully and was the undoubted star of the day. Unusually tall for a spinner, he disguised his pace well and showed some loop too. With merely an average dollop of luck he'd have picked up five, rather than two wickets. Time and again he flummoxed Kevin Pietersen and the other English batsmen with bounce, pace and turn. The rest of the West Indies attack was pretty benign, mind you. Nonetheless, armed with a new ball tomorrow morning they will return knowing that an early breakthrough gives them a good chance of dismissing England for fewer than 300 runs.
As for the England batting, Ian Bell and Kevin Pietersen seem likely to receive brickbats. Bell played for turn and was undone by a good, quicker, flatter arm ball from Chris Gayle. Pietersen, having batted splendidly, simply lost his head in typical KP style. That's the way he plays, he said at the close, and there's no point arguing with that. Less confident (or arrogant) batsmen might have contented themselves with 14 runs from an over, but not the bold Pietersen. But, as Ian Botham said on the SKY commentary, Gayle and Benn deserved creidt for holding fast and resisting the temptation to push the field back. They challenged Pietersen and he faied the test. Captains too often deploy fielders on the boundary these days, permitting the batsmen to milk three singles an over. Indeed, that's how England, under Pietersen of course, lost the test in Madras last year.
Sure enough, Patrick Kidd, for one, criticises Bell and despairs that the little man seems to be "undroppable". I defended Bell at some length last year and will only add that though I would bat him at 5 or 6, not 3, it is perverse that Bell receives more criticism than Cook, Collingwood and Strauss combined when their test records are more or less identical. In part this is because Bell has more talent than the others, in part too because he makes the game look easy when he's going well. But it makes little sense to single out the player with, Pietersen apart, the biggest upside.
Then again, this suspicion of grace and flair is a very English disease; one seen in football and, to some extent rugby too. It's the mentality that elevates a Gooch above a Gower, a mentality that, in football, never managed to find a role for a Matt Le Tissier and so on and so on. True, Bell has been on a bad run lately and it's 11 innings since he last scored a test century, but how often have you seen it pointed out that Alastair Cook has gone no fewer than 22 innings without reaching three figures? That's not to argue Cook should be dropped (who would play in his stead? A quandary for another post, another day) but that Bell is, to some extent, the victim of a certain double-standard.
For that matter, Cook played an appalling shot, caught at mid-on trying to pull a ball from outside off stump that was neither short enough nor on the right line for such a shot. Collingwood, for his part, misjudged the length and was palpably LBW while trying to sweep. The sweep, of course, is often a shot a batsman turns to when he can't quite think what else to do and there was an element of desperation to Collingwood's shot. No-one gains much enjoyment from criticising Collingwood since everyone recognises that he's made the most of every ounce of talent he possesses and then some. (Here too the contrast with Bell is instructive) but while he's a player one respects and admires, it's hard to imagine the opposition really fears him. And that's England's problem: in an ideal world one of Bell, Cook, Strauss and Collingwood would be the thrid or fourth best batsmen in your side not, as they are currently are, a kind of joint second best. In other words England are short at least one batsman of true and consistent class.
More encouragingly, Flintoff batted with great resolution and common-sense. He survived some perilous moments against the spinners but came through them and was in command by the close. Happily he seemed to be enjoying his cricket too.
Looking at the pitch, mind you, it's apparent that not only will Monty Panesar have to bowl well but England may also have to hope that Ryan Sidebottom can find some swing. This doesn't look a track made for Harmison or Broad, while no-one can be confident that Flintoff is fit enough to bowl much more than a dozen overs a day.
So, a fine day's play and it's encouraging to see the West Indies putting up a good fight. Like James I think cricket needs a Caribbean revival. The first thing is to become a side that's tough to beat, a side that doesn't cave under the slightest pressure. Hopefully, for cricket's sake, this will be a tougher series for England than many England supporters expected.