Having spent the best part of two days in the dirt watching Kraigg Brathwaite chalk up the third longest innings by a West Indian after Brian Lara’s two world records, it is over to England’s batters to see whether they can somehow advance this second Test and force an unlikely win on the final day.
The tourists will resume on 40 for no loss and a lead of 136 runs, West Indies having finally been bowled out for 411 from 187.5 overs after tea in reply to 507 for nine declared. Brathwaite led the way for the hosts, not just turning his overnight 109 into 160 but also putting miles into the legs of his opponents.
Brathwaite had also refreshed his own attack but inducing some late panic was never going to be easy on this surface. Though one scare followed when Zak Crawley reviewed an lbw decision on two, pinned in front by Kemar Roach only for Hawk-Eye to show it was missing leg stump by a whisker, he and Alex Lees survived 15 overs and will resume a possible charge for quick runs first thing.
“Pressure can do funny things,” replied Saqib Mahmood, fresh from figures of two for 58 from 27 overs on debut, when asked if England can claim 10 wickets on day five. “I’ve got my head around putting the bowling boots back on. It’s been hard work so far but that is why we play the game.”
It had been a serious slog just to get to this point, with only Lara’s scores of 375 (766 mins) in 1994 and 400 not out (778) 10 years on longer than Brathwaite’s 710-minute innings among Caribbean epics. “This was the first time my mother has watched me play,” revealed the Barbadian right-hander. “Scoring runs is always a great feeling and I’m very happy to get a hundred at home.”
The soft-spoken West Indies captain prefers the road less travelled in these parts, having never played a professional game of Twenty20. His occupation is very much occupation and, after the hosts resumed on 288 for four, he ground down his opponents with a remarkable display of concentration that saw him notch up 400 dot balls out of the 489 he faced over two days.
Over 200 of these had come out of the hand of Jack Leach and been repelled before the left-arm spinner eventually got one to pitch on middle, rag past a weary defensive shot and kiss the off stump before tea; the relief was palpable, with Root’s attack having already heard the dreaded words “third new ball” by this stage.
Brathwaite looked downbeat as he walked off but at 385 for seven in the 169th over it was a case of mission accomplished, having provided the backbone for his side’s reply and doused the spirits of the travelling supporters to the extent that, when Sweet Caroline rung around the ground for the umpteenth time, they barely joined in.
Their loudest cheers were arguably those that met the wickets claimed by Mahmood, recognising a wholehearted first outing and the agony he had felt when a maiden Test wicket was scrubbed off on the third day for a no-ball. After a soporific morning of 63 runs and one wicket – Ben Stokes removing nightwatchman Alzarri Joseph after 90 minutes of resistance – it finally came.
Though the shot from Jason Holder after lunch was ugly, top-edging a slog, it still took a fine swirling catch from Matthew Fisher to get Mahmood off the mark. “I’m relieved more than anything,” Mahmood later said. “I felt the biggest criminal [after the no-ball]. When I got that one today, I had a little check there were no dramas.”
The satisfaction of a simpler second for Mahmood came when Veerasammy Permaul, the No 9, was trapped lbw but this was another day of toil for England’s right-arm fast-mediums with no reverse swing owing to the early moisture on the ball. Fisher, the second debutant on show, was unable to add to his maiden Test wicket claimed way back on the second evening, Ben Stokes was worked the hardest and Chris Woakes was notably ignored for long periods by his captain.
A wicket for Woakes eventually came as England picked off the West Indies tail, Roach given out lbw to a ball that was barely scratching leg stump. But it may be that the bowler England viewed as their attack leader on this tour has a breather in next week’s third Test in Grenada unless the floodgates open in the fourth innings.
Ollie Robinson and Craig Overton are the spare seamers but if another pitch like this one is prepared, England will consider a second spinner – and another debutant – in Matt Parkinson. Certainly Leach could do with some help, sending down 69.5 overs for figures of three for 118 that were solid enough but also reflected a lack of air on the ball at times and West Indies eschewing risk.
That said, the most recent first-class match played at the National Stadium in St George’s saw seamers to the fore and Leeward Islands roll Guyana by an innings in three days; a repeat might not generate the most revenue for the local cricket board but it would be livelier than the fare on offer to date.