Both of the teams in action at Headingley have been playing out versions of Groundhog Day that have become so painful, so eye-rollingly familiar that even the comic abilities of Bill Murray would be stretched to make them entertaining. By the time Shane Dowrich put the tin lid on West Indies’ mixed day in the field with the most glaring of drops halfway through the evening session, the problem of England’s porous top five may have faded – but it won’t be forgotten.
Like particularly grating background music, talk about positions one, three and five in the batting order refuses to go away. Ben Stokes managed to drown it out for a while with another grim-faced innings of substance, but England were left with a total that could be anything from under-par to match-winning (they did, after all, beat Sri Lanka by an innings on this ground last year after scoring only 298).
Stokes should not have had the chance to dig England out of trouble, having been badly put down by Kraigg Brathwaite at second slip on 9. Given that Joe Root, England’s other significant contributor to the scorecard, was dropped early on in even more culpable fashion by Kieran Powell, things could have been a fair degree worse. Root and Stokes – who later benefited briefly from another clanger on 98 – added 142 runs after escaping West Indies’ clutches and it does not take much imagination to think that could prove decisive.
While at Edgbaston, West Indies’ initial sharpness with the ball did not last beyond the first hour, this time they bowled with much better discipline throughout the day. That perhaps made Mark Stoneman’s dismissal the most disappointing for England, as he had negotiated the early exchanges comfortably enough before flashing at a drive to be caught behind.
Stoneman, though, has only played two Test innings and England will not be passing judgement yet. Tom Westley, who had spoken eloquently before the Test about the scrutiny his game has come in for over the last few weeks, and Dawid Malan have less room for manoeuvre. After six innings, they have a fifty apiece and averages uncomfortably close to 20. Even if England continue to be a winning side in their presence, they could be heavy baggage on an Ashes tour. Australia is not the place to take passengers.
Westley is aware of the tendency of his bottom hand to take over to the extent that he practises special drills to try and stop him gripping the handle too tightly – but, for the second innings in a row, his bat came down late and at an angle as the ball thudded ominously into his pads. Having succeeded with his favoured method of scoring off his legs in three encouraging knocks against South Africa, that strength has suddenly and disconcertingly threatened to become a weakness.
With Alastair Cook having been first to go, England maintained their troubling trend of shaky starts. Since the start of the 2015 summer, when Trevor Bayliss took charge, the Test side have been three down for less than 100 in 39 innings out of 62; on 24 occasions, the position has been 62 for 3 or worse. As The Smiths sang, “that joke isn’t funny anymore”.
And it got worse before it got better. Headingley has a reputation for caprice but there was assistance for the bowlers even with the sun out, as Malan discovered when Jason Holder, who found his rhythm and exploited the conditions well to fulfil his role as third seamer, found enough nibble to clip the inside edge and disturb the stumps. Malan’s role in the top order may be the most tenuous of all, with Chris Woakes’ inclusion at No. 9 allowing England to field a lower-middle order of luxurious power.
The return of the Championship on Bank Holiday Monday is likely to reignite debate about how England can plug the holes. Names such as Haseeb Hameed, Alex Hales, Gary Ballance – even Keaton Jennings, who was with the squad at Headingley on Friday – will be tossed around by those on the county circuit, though Stokes gave the incumbents his backing.
“These guys who are playing at the moment are in the team through the runs they’ve scored in first-class cricket,” Stokes said. “It’s easy to judge people on how they play in the first couple of games but they’re playing international cricket for England and the only way they get here is scoring runs for their counties, which they’ve all managed to do. I don’t think it’s a concern, they’re all class players in their own right. We saw Dawid get a really good 60-70 at Edgbaston and I’ve grown up playing with Rocky at Durham, I know how good a player he is. New guys are only ever one knock away from being a good player.”
It was that comfortable upholstery down the order that again cushioned England’s fall, with Stokes adding his second mature hundred of the summer, to go alongside his effort against South Africa at The Oval. Len Hutton once said of England that “the bone is of the North, and the backbone is Yorkshire”. A crowd of 14,000 – not too far shy of capacity given the limitations on the soon-to-be demolished Rugby Stand – would have perhaps preferred Root or Jonny Bairstow to embody that but you do not get much more northern than Stokes (despite his Christchurch birthplace).
It takes something to keep Headingley’s Western Terrace quiet but West Indies managed it, at least until the most-raucous sections of that famously garrulous stand had got their vocal chords properly lubricated. Their evening jollity was aided by some Stokes punch, even if the headache caused by the top order will still be there in the morning.