Victory, defeat or draw, Antigua test match was the winner

To the uninitiated, primarily Americans such as Sir Allen Stanford, events at the Antigua Recreation Ground on Thursday evening and their aftermath would have been incomprehensible.

They can never get their minds around a sporting contest lasting five days in the first place. That it should finish, as the third Test did, without a winner adds to their confusion.

They would be further bewildered by the assertion of Chris Gayle, the captain of the team that barely hung on for a draw, that it was “a victory” and by the comment of his counterpart, Andrew Strauss, that the outcome “almost feels like a defeat.”
Yet, had he not had other things on his mind at the time and was on the island where his now sullied stamp was once prevalent, Stanford might even have conceded that Test cricket wasn’t quite so boring as he once derided it to be.
The game that has stood the test of time over 130 years is appealing in many other ways but few quite as exciting and nerve-racking as one that comes to such a climax.

After 2,622 balls delivered over five days, a wicket of one of the final 60 would have won the match for England and it would be Gayle bemoaning defeat and Strauss proclaiming victory.

Once, back in December 1960, the accumulated scores of Australia and the West Indies were exactly the same after five days and 3,142 balls when the last of all 20 wickets fell off the penultimate delivery.
For all its own excitement and popularity, it is the kind of emotion that cricket’s newest, shortest format, the 20/20 fad that Stanford and others decree as the game of the future, cannot match.
That the great escape was finally engineered by the two worst batsmen in the team, by reputation and position, heightened the drama and the tension. Not that either doubted himself.

Daren Powell presaged his defiance with his vigil of over two hours as first innings night watchman. He could always bat but his ambition too frequently overtook his capacity.

Fidel Edwards, on the other hand, appreciates his blatant limitations and generally plays within them, as he did again. Twice before he kept his nerve and his wicket as last man in to earn the West Indies a similar result – in Harare against Zimbabwe in only his second Test in 2001 and three years ago against Pakistan in what was thought to be the ARG’s last Test.
What they achieved together ensured that the earlier, determined association of almost four hours all told between the real batsmen, Ramnaresh Sarwan and Shivnarine Chanderpaul, was not in vain.
Given all the distractions of a miserable week that began with the abandonment of the original Test at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium, continued with the effective turnover by locals of their ARG to the hordes of England’s accompanying fans and concluded amidst the fraud charges against Stanford, the great benefactor of Antigua and West Indies cricket, it was remarkable resilience.
Its effect was immediately evident in the stark contrast between the joyous relief among the previously absent West Indians, who had appeared as if from nowhere in the open eastern seats where the faithful always congregated, and the suddenly sad and silent Barmy Army in the upper tier of the double-decker stand.

Powell punched the air as soon as their light meters advised umpires Daryl Harper and Rudi Koertzen that it was too dark to continue. Before they got half-way to the pavilion his jubilant team mates greeted him and Edwards as heroes.
England, wearied by a day and a half’s hard slog in the sun on an outfield as hard as its disgraced equivalent up the road was soft and sandy, trooped off as if heading for a funeral.

Throughout they played by far the better cricket. They amassed 566 for nine after they were sent in. They led by 281 on first innings, over 500 by the time Strauss decided it was time for a late second innings declaration.
To be one rabbit’s wicket away from atonement for their all-out 51 in the first Test in Kingston that hastened them to a morale-shattering innings defeat was too much to bear. No wonder Strauss conceded that it almost felt like defeat.
For the second time, his captaincy has been by default, a late appointment after Kevin Pietersen’s enforced resignation. After the Kingston defeat, it is again coming under scrutiny.

The most pressing question concerns his decision to allow England’s second innings to carry on as long as it did so that his bowlers had the comfort of an unattainable target of 503.

He counters by noting that the 128 overs they had at the West Indies should have been and, indeed, were almost, enough to complete the job.
His option might have been guided by a few past experiences.
In Chennai in December, India compiled 387 for four to beat England, then led by Pietersen. A month later, in Perth, South Africa went even better, amassing 414 for four for victory over Australia,
And, this is the same ARG, the same flat pitch, on which the West Indies reached 418 for seven to conquer Australia six years earlier and on which Brian Lara’s 375 and 400 not out are among more batting records than anywhere else in the Caribbean.
Strauss pointed to several individual positives from Antigua, certainly more than for the West Indies.
His own first innings 169, Alistair Cook’s two half-centuries, Owais Shah’s promising return to the No.3 position, the bowling of Chris Broad and the reinstated Graeme Swann, the fielding.

His worries involve the psychological impact of the failure to close the deal at the ARG, They were compounded yesterday by the news that a strained hip muscle has eliminated Andrew Flintoff, his inspirational all-rounder, from the fourth Test, starting on Thursday at Kensington Oval, his latest in a sequence of injuries, and that Swann is doubtful with a sore elbow.
It is the other way round for Gayle and the West Indies. They are on an emotional high after their two victories, one actual, the other moral, and everyone is fit.

But they must know they were lucky to get away with the inconsistency that continues to run them into trouble.
In the circumstances, it would be unwise to now change the eleven. Even Powell acknowledged yesterday that his record does not merit his retention as the back-up fast bowler to Jerome Taylor and Edwards but to leave him out would upset some of the fervour he helped create in Antigua.
A mental advantage is significant in any sport, not least one stretching over five days, but not paramount. The series still hinges on the team that is better, more consistent in every department on the field.
On that score, it is level 1-1 at present with all to play for over the remaining two Tests.

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