It’s testament to the glorious eccentricities of Test cricket that one of the finest five-match matches in recent history was won by a team of no-hopers.
Twenty20 cricket has proved the great leveller internationally, with the shortest format ensuring that despite a gulf in class and resources, teams like Ireland, Afghanistan and the Netherlands do have a chance against the world elite.
But Test matches are different: the sternest of examinations of a players aptitude at the crease, in the field and with the ball in hand; over five days where the utmost concentration is required.
Rarely does the weaker side win. Upsets do happen, but they’re often easier to forecast than what transpired at Headingley.
Going into a full day’s play having been blown away by an innings and 209 runs inside three days in the first match, with a top six averaging just 18 tests each and the West Indies without a Test win on English soil.
Given Moeen Ali’s form as finisher and James Anderson’s need for three wickets to reach the magic 500-mark, this was supposed to be over in time for tea.
TOP QUALITY! Shai Hope second century of match. Now on 100 not out: 175 balls, 13×4. First man in history to make twin tons at Headingley pic.twitter.com/04bChop8x2
— CricketWestIndies (@westindies) August 29, 2017
What transpired stoic and stubborn display of batting by Kraigg Brathwaite – by far the most experienced of their line-up with 38 Tests – and Shai Hope, with nominative determinism now stretching beyond his efforts on the field to him becoming a symbol for what the West Indies can become.
The post-mortems in the wake of the capitulation at Edgbaston weren’t delivered with the same vitriol as usually afforded to error-ridden teams. Yes, there was some criticism of Jason Holder’s captaincy and use of the new ball but, in essence, they were of pity and sadness that West Indies cricket had come to this. United in their grief for one of Test cricket’s iconic institutions. It was never going to get any better, nor it was possible.
Holder and his team could well have retreated into their shells, fallen back on their inexperience, pointed to eternal problems with the West Indies Cricket Board and a lack of ‘star names’ in the British Isles. Just like in Birmingham they wouldn’t have necessarily been individually blamed, what happens more a product of the environment they are playing cricket in.
Except, clearly head coach Stuart Law, Holder and his team-mates did recognise their mistakes, that it was their fault and, in doing so, that they could be corrected. Maybe, just maybe, they felt patronised.
How much their performance at Edgbaston influenced England’s approach in Leeds is unclear but there was an element of lethargy in the attack on day five, coupled with a sense of waiting for an inevitable conclusion that was never coming.
Joe Root’s bold/careless declaration on day four the starting point for where it went, but there would be few international skippers who wouldn’t have surveyed the West Indies, their track record and what they’re supposedly capable of, and not thought they couldn’t be finished off inside three sessions.
Context is everything, even when presenting the opposition a fourth innings total as reachable as 322.
Root will learn from any complacency that may have crept in, to his decision-making or that of his team but this should be more about the West Indies’ achievement.
For Test cricket it is considerable. The domination of India, Australia, England and to a lesser extent South Africa, healthy only in financial terms of the respective boards and ICC, for top-down economics of world cricket has sucked the life out of the competition.
A match which ebbed and flowed, bemused and befuddled; featuring enough dropped catches for even Monty Panesar to blush, and the guilty parties being some of the most decorated players on the field. But most of all, it entertained.
Even with the victory in sight, two runs short of their total Jermaine Blackwood raised the alarm as he swung for the fences only to be stumped by Johnny Bairstow.
It sort of made sense, but at the same time was totally baffling. As sport should be. And while this is only one Test, which could prove a momentarily blip, there are signs of life and, just like the West Indies themselves, reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated.