After two turgid Test matches in Antigua and Barbados this series suddenly burst into life on the opening day of the decider in St George’s. A carnival took place off the field and a procession of wickets took place on it, until the unlikely pairing of Jack Leach and Saqib Mahmood changed the story completely.
At the close, as the band of steel drummers in the Junior Murray/Rawl Lewis Stand started to rest their weary wrists after three sessions of tropical rhythms, England had finally been bowled out for 204 when, with three balls remaining, Mahmood was castled by the part-time spin of Jermaine Blackwood one run short of a maiden half-century at any level.
It was heartbreaking for the No 11, who had combined with Leach, 41 from 141 deliveries, for a 10th wicket stand of 90 over 36 overs that had arrested an alarming collapse from those higher up the order and driven West Indies to distraction. The pair had fought their corner and hustled runs with impressive composure, Mahmood top-scoring for his side in the process.
Conditions had eased for the two tailenders in the final session, it must be said, certainly compared to the first two in which England subsided to 67 for seven after lunch, with six of the departed failing to reach double figures and Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow registering ducks. At that stage their hopes of registering a first series win here since 2004 were in strife.
This was a memorable opening day, played out in glorious sunshine and with good local support for a working day making for an engrossing atmosphere and a much-needed change of narrative on tour. The pitch started out offering seam movement, inconsistent bounce and, through a combination of the two, a reality check for the batters who felt good after filling their boots during the first two.
Root will have known things would be tricky when he lost the toss and Kraigg Brathwaite asked the visitors to bat while also announcing that his spinner, Veerasammy Permaul, had made way for Kyle Mayers; the thickset Barbadian is a batter but also a more than handy purveyor of medium-pace swing with knowledge of this ground from a previous time playing for the Leeward Islands.
It proved an instant masterstroke when Mayers entered the fray in the 11th over and, after struggling with his run-up initially, knocked over Zak Crawley and Root in a run of five maidens. The former drove loosely to cover and the latter nicked off to one that nipped a fraction. Having bemoaned the lack of pace in county cricket after the Ashes, Root had been nobbled by someone who would fit right in.
When the more frontline Jayden Seales returned for a second spell, the Trinidadian trapping Dan Lawrence in front for a plumb lbw on 10, England went into lunch on 46 for three and had a bit to chew over as a parade of dancers, stilt-walkers and costumed revellers suddenly began circulating the boundary’s edge to the delight of visitors and locals alike.
After this injection of calypso came the collapse, however, with England losing five wickets for 21 in the space of 12.1 overs – three coming with the score on 53 – as the West Indies pace attack feasted on their first opportunity all series to truly dominate. It was triggered initially by Alzarri Joseph, who cranked up his speeds beyond the 90mph mark to remove Ben Stokes caught and bowled and tickle the edge of Bairstow’s tepid defensive shot third ball.
In between came the departure of Alex Lees who, after batting through the morning using the nous of a county pro in April, fell for 31 from 97 balls when edging behind off Kemar Roach. This was likely justice being served, Roach appearing to get his man the same way two balls earlier only to find his captain, Brathwaite, reluctant to review after burning his first two before lunch.
There was less uncertainty about the dismissal of Ben Foakes, bowled neck and crop by the returning Seales with one that lavishly jagged back in and trimmed the bails. But from here England’s fightback began to form, Chris Woakes and Craig Overton initially chiselling out a stand of 27 before the latter was bowled by Roach to see the tourists reach tea on 114 for eight.
Woakes, who has held his spot here because of Ollie Robinson’s fitness problems, had played his usual cool hand but lasted just two balls after the break. Seales repeated the trick that removed Foakes and likely persuaded his openers to start thinking about facing England’s new-ball attack.
Few could have predicted what was to come and in a series being played out by two lowly teams, mistakes were always possible. These duly came when lives were handed to Leach on 10, dropped at slip by Mayers, and when Mahmood was put down by the diving John Campbell at cover on 15.
The No 11 promptly launched the following delivery from Mayers for six and as the final session wore on, frustration grew for the hosts. England were never out of the match – as recently as 1897, Lord Hawke’s XI were bowled out for 138 on this island and still beat Grenada by an innings – but a challenge that at one stage looked as stiff as climbing the neighbouring hills had eased.