Alex Massie

Lessons from a great Antiguan Drama

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Test match cricket is something else, isn't it? Patrick Kidd has a splendid line making the point that test cricket is terrific because it is "a game in which it is much more exciting when something almost happens than when it happens all the time." Granted, cricket's detractors might cite this as evidence to support their prejudices, but who cares about them? Kidd is right.

This was a great test match, conjured from the most unlikely circumstances. Full credit to the groundstaff at the ARG and, of course, to both teams who produced a match that vindicated the idea and reality of test cricket even as one of its greatest enemies - Sir Allen Stanford - was being pursued by the FBI. If you believe in karma, this makes sense, doesn't it?

The saddest aspect of the way cricket is run these days is that those in charge of administering the game have such little confidence in test cricket. But the drama at the ARG this week vastly surpassed anything offered by the abbreviated versions of the game. The Reduced Shakespeare Company does fine work in shrinking the Bard's plays into a single evening of jollity but no-one, least of all the players themselves, would claim that their production, for all its fizzle, is anything more than a homage to Shakespeare's brilliance. The same might be said of the relationship between Twenty20 cricket and the real drama of matches played over five days (or acts, if you like).

A draw was a fair result and battling rear-guard actions are always noble endeavours. England bowled well and fielded superbly (no dropped catches) but West Indian gallantry and grit deserved a fitting reward. Batting for four and a bit sessions on anything other than a featherbed merits respect. Sarwan and Chanderpaul, in their very different ways, batted beautifully; each was undone by Stuart Broad whose improvement on this tour has been splendid to behold. Thereafter every remaining West Indian batsman scrapped and battled; each had to be winkled out since none threw their wickets away with a reckless or foolish stroke.

And so England kept plugging away. Flintoff stirred his body to deliver six overs for just nine runs in his final spell (not that runs mattered by this point), charging in, all grimaces and pain and answering the call for one more Charge of the Heavy Brigade. At the other end, Anderson bowled with little luck while Swann was a revelation; teasing with drift and occasional spin. Above all he was in control and rarely did one think that England were exhausted or out of ideas.

Yet even as one willed England to take the final pair of wickets that would see them square the series, so one found oneself hoping that the West Indies would survive. As Benn and Powell scrapped to save the match, the television cameras shwed Fidel Edwards (career average: less than 5) waiting for his turn to bat. The poor man looked as though he might be sick at any moment. But when necessity asked its questions, Edwards rose to the challenge. He and Powell survived ten anxious, edge-of-the-seat overs to see the Windies home and safe. And deservedly so. (If you didn't see or hear the final day, I recommend you read the Guardian's over-by-over coverage. Terrific as always.)

England may feel their declaration was tardy and they'd be right if they did. For my part I think their decision not to enforce the follow-on, while understandable given their concerns over the fitness of Flintoff and Harmison, was a mistake. In doing so they gave the West Indies a more plausible path to survival. That said, England still had 128 overs - 768 deliveries - in which to take the ten wickets they needed.

But it wasn't to be. No matter. Something more important happened in Antigua this week: the majesty and charm and complexity of test match cricket was reaffirmed. That hoary old cliche "cricket was the winner" was proved true. Again.

Next stop, Barbados...

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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