Short of winning the lottery and discovering a renewable energy source, it has hard to think of a way in which the first competitive day of this tour of the Caribbean could have gone any better for England. Having brushed aside the St Kitts Invitational XI for just 59 in the first session of the match, they then witnessed their new opening pair bat for more than 50 overs in posting 158 for the first wicket.
It was not a pretty, quick or even particularly entertaining stand. Indeed, some might even describe it as dull. But bearing in mind the identity of England’s opening batsmen and the testing months they have endured of late, it was wonderfully, reassuringly dull and a sign that, perhaps, a corner has been turned.
First the caveats. This is a shockingly weak St Kitts side containing several men without first-class experience and one 16-year-old. Compared to the challenges that await England later this year – particularly Australia – it was like preparing to wrestle a lion by petting a kitten. If England want to test themselves a little more in the second warm-up game, starting on Wednesday, they may have to negotiate the inclusion of their unused squad players within the opposition.
But England will still have benefited from the experience. Not only was Jonathan Trott able to settle back into the side with a calm innings that bore no traces of the struggles he has endured, but Alastair Cook batted with increasing fluency, Ben Stokes bowled with admirable control and England’s fielding was faultless.
Their catching, in particular, was excellent. The best of several sharp chances taken in the slips was claimed by James Tredwell, diving low to his right, but Cook and Gary Ballance also clung on to catches that less confident, less content teams often fail to hold.
There were some lessons here, too. We learned that Ian Bell has been appointed vice-captain for the tour – a modest change of approach as Cook has previously suggested that appointing someone to the position could discourage other senior players from taking responsibility – and we learned the likely make-up of the first seven in the Test batting line-up, at least.
It is now unthinkable that, barring injury, Trott will not return to the England side for the Antigua Test and that Stokes will not return to fill the role of allrounder. With Chris Jordan, who also bowled nicely, preferred to Mark Wood or Liam Plunkett, both of whom are fit, it would appear that the final place in the Test side may come down to a tussle between Adil Rashid and Tredwell.
Cook experienced only two nervous moments in reaching an unbeaten 95 by stumps. On 17, he top-edged a pull off Jeremiah Louis only to see the ball fall into space and then, on 92, St Kitts claimed a catch in the belief that a cut shot had bounced off the silly-point fielder’s boot and on to cover. Cook, and more importantly the umpires, were unconvinced.
In between, he demonstrated a slightly more open stance, left the ball with far more certainty about the location of his off stump and, having reached his half-century from 95 balls, skipped down the pitch and planted a six over long-on in an innings that hinted at a more calm mind and more reliable technique than has been in evidence of late.
Trott, meanwhile, was unhurried and solid. While never at his most fluent, this was an innings that will have settled some lingering nerves and, having reached his 50 from 113 balls, he demonstrated a couple of nice sweeps, pulls and one vintage drive through extra-cover to provide a reminder of his abilities.
For both men greater challenges lie ahead. But it was a partnership that demonstrated a great appetite for crease occupation and suggested their powers of concentration, at least, have been boosted by an extended break from the fray.
Stokes was the pick of the bowlers in the morning session. Maintaining a tight line to right and left-hand batsmen, he bowled with increasing pace and gained a surprising amount of swing in claiming three wickets in five deliveries at one stage.
James Anderson beat the bat often in his spell with the new ball and produced a beauty that defeated Sherwin Peters’ footless grope and took the top of off stump, while Stuart Broad’s modest first spell was followed by a slightly improved second one that gained two wickets with short balls.
Adil Rashid’s first ball – a horrid long-hop – was pulled for four, but he improved after that and, having set up Quinton Boatswain with a series of leg-breaks, defeated him with a googly. Tredwell was the last of the attack to win an opportunity and struck with just his third ball; Sheno Berridge attempting to sweep a straight one and missing.
And while it tells you everything you need to know about the St Kitts performance that a stray dog that ran on to the playing area during the morning session provided more resistance to leaving the pitch than any of their batsmen, England could hardly have dealt with them more clinically. Australia must be quaking in their boots.