West Indies selection mistakes prove crucial to England comeback

Cricket is all about mistakes. Wickets drive the game forward, and they’re rarely down to an unplayable ball. Fielding mistakes, dropped catches, poor shots, poor shot selection. Then there’s the off-field mistakes. Wrong team, wrong call at the toss.

The first day of the Test series between the West Indies and England was defined by mistakes, most of them made before the first ball was bowled. The first mistake was made by both teams, not playing two spinners.

Both teams went in with a specialist finger-spinner, and left out a leg-spinner. For England, it seemed more understandable. Those watching England’s warm-ups and net practice report that Rashid, in the words of George Dobell, “is not currently in the form to select.”

But net bowling is one thing, Test cricket is another thing entirely. Perhaps Rashid wouldn’t merit selection as an only spinner, but as a second spinner, batting at seven, even if he didn’t contribute wickets, his overs would be expendable. England may have made the correct decision, but it wasn’t the brave one.

Rashid’s selection was a risk worth taking, but Devendra Bishoo’s seemed like an obvious choice. I’ve written extensively about West Indies’ spinners, so it hardly needs repeating. Suffice to say, Bishoo is in form, the pitch should spin, and England are inclined to self-destruct at the mere possibility of leg-spin (witness Steven Smith’s wickets in the 2013 Ashes – from a bowler well inferior to Bishoo).

If you’re not with me on my leg-spin hobby horse, fair enough, but one decision which will take some explaining is Denesh Ramdin’s decision to bowl upon winning the toss. It wasn’t quite Nasser Hussain at Brisbane levels of misguided, but England are not quite the 2002 Australians.

The decision was flattered by three early wickets, confirming Denesh Ramdin’s reasoning at the toss. However, making a decision based on early moisture can backfire when the moisture evaporates. The moisture did, the swing slowly ebbed, Bell and Root got in and made hay.

Then there were the on-field mistakes. Sulieman Benn dropped Root at mid-wicket on 61. He went on to make another 22. Ian Bell edged through a vacant third slip on 21; he went on to make another 122.

Still, as the game goes on, the fundamental mistakes may cost West Indies just as much. Bowling too short as the day went on, waywardness in the face of stubborn, then increasingly fluent resistance.

England have been known for starting series slowly, but what was impressive for them today is that they didn’t let it degenerate beyond 34-3. Perhaps the best analogue for today is the first Test two years ago in New Zealand. England were confronted with a decent but not world beating attack, and after losing early wickets, batsmen never got in and thus never got a chance to grind the bowlers down.

Here, the bowlers were ground down. It seems a long time ago now, but 16 overs in to the day, Gary Ballance had just succumbed and each of the West Indies’ quicks had a wicket, whilst Benn when he came on also threatened, but only briefly. But good batting exposed the West Indies bowlers.

Individually they’re all talented, but they were thrown a raw deal by their captain, and his lack of leadership in the field meant that the day drifted, the West Indies drifted and squandered their opportunity.

Perhaps the lack of Bishoo defined the day. After the early wickets, the West Indies seamers searched too hard for wickets, bowling bad balls in the process. Add Bishoo to the equation and you have another wicket taker in the middle overs of the day, allowing the seamers to bowl consistently and not worry about blasting out wickets.

Add Bishoo as a fifth bowler and you eliminate the costly and impotent overs from Samuels, you take some burden off the seamers (and Benn for that matter), allowing them to be fresher late in the day for the second new ball. Put simply, when coming up against the quality of Bell and Root, the West Indies needed more incision and they left it out. Big mistake.

Originally published 13-April-2015

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