England clambered from the wreckage of their pummellings against West Indies in Barbados and Antigua to achieve a face-saving victory in St Lucia which, if not entirely hollow, was certainly not exactly loaded with significance.
They were aided considerably by a belated realisation among their batsmen that when a ball with your name on it is flying towards you from the bowler, there is no absolute obligation to try to scrub your name off that ball with the edge of your hopelessly flailing bat.
Mark Wood’s pyrotechnic five-for provided the only genuine, certifiable positive of the series for England – he took as many wickets in eight overs as he had in the four previous Tests he had played since 2016 – and they at least avoided a scarring 3-0 whitewash.
Nonetheless, this series was a major failure for England against a West Indies team playing its best cricket of the millennium.
The rise of the fast bowler
The struggles of England’s batsmen in the relevant phase of the series added further to the recent trend of bowlers’ dominance in Test cricket.
In the series, the two teams’ bowlers had a combined average of 26.1.
Since the start of 2018, there have been nine Test series of three or more matches played and the bowlers have collectively averaged less than 30 in all of them. Previously this millennium, bowlers averaged under 30 in just 23% of such series.
The two teams’ collective first-innings series batting average of 19.9 was the eighth worst in Test history (out of 500 series of three or more matches).
England contributed with impressive consistency to this stat – their first-innings average of 16.4 was their second worst in 225 series of at least three Tests, and the outstanding West Indian attack’s first innings strike-rate of 38.6 was the best such figure by any team against England (fractionally ahead of the fearsome, bone-splintering West Indies pace attack of 1985-86).
Overall in Test cricket since the start of 2018, the bowlers’ collective average is down 19% on the figure for 2001-2017 (27.6, down from 34.0), with pace bowlers down 23% (25.4, from 33.1) and spinners down 13% (31.1, from 35.5).
The improvement has been particularly marked within the first 20 overs of innings, when pace bowlers have been 29% more effective in terms of average (24.7, down from 34.9), highlighting how top-order batting since the start of last year has been like trying to watch the news without throwing a brick at your television – not impossible, but more difficult than it used to be.
How the rankings bear this out
The world bowling rankings give further evidence of the difficulties facing Test batsmen today (exactly how these rankings are calculated is one of the most closely-guarded secrets in the known universe. It is rumoured to involve a shady sub-committee of the Bilderberg Group comprising 100 warlocks, an escaped scientist, and an infinite number of walruses, based inside a fake volcano somewhere near Antarctica. They do, however, give a reliable indicator of form and contextualised performance).
This depth of bowling has nurtured the modern trend for collapsing, and collapsing hard and often.
As a broad rule, batsmen now seem more dominant and destructive when conditions and situations are in their favour, and more fragile when adversity rears one of its many and inconvenient heads.
England collapsing more than any other time in history
England are doing their bit for evolution of the collapsative arts – since 2000, England have lost all 10 wickets for under 100 runs 40 times in 246 Tests, having done so 35 times in 406 Tests from the sixties to the nineties.
The advent of Twenty20 cricket, and the expanded awareness of what is possible in attack with the bat, may have eroded the mental and technical skills needed for prolonged Test-match defence.
The success of the rapid-scoring, turn-of-the-millennium Australian team – facilitated by the presence of a frankly unfair number of all-time cricketing greats – influenced the overall approach to Test batting around the world.
Recently, an influx of high-class fast bowlers, alongside some spicy pitches and overactive balls, has made batting more challenging than at any point for at least 20 years.
Perhaps a crumb of comfort for England is that their striking, seemingly intractable, batting struggles have been shared by most teams, in most locations, around the Test world.
Stats to impress/romance/deter your Valentine’s date
Early-evening introductory stat: Moeen Ali took 32 wickets at an average of 24.2 in this winter’s Tests – the joint-second most by an England bowler in a Test winter in the last 40 years (Graeme Swann took 37 wickets in 2009-10; Steve Harmison (2003-04) and Ian Botham (1979-80) each had a 32-wicket winter).
Stat equivalent to a bunch of pre-dinner flowers: Roston Chase became the first bowler to take an eight-wicket haul but no other wickets in a Test series. He was also only the fifth man to score a century and take an eight-for in a series (after Imran Khan (Pakistan v India, 1982-83); Ian Botham (England v Pakistan, 1978); Tony Greig (England in West Indies, 1973-74); and Len Braund (England in Australia, 1903-04).
Second bottle of wine stat: Kemar Roach took 13 wickets for 95 runs in the three first innings. His first-innings series average of 7.3 is the sixth best by a bowler who has played at least three Tests, and the third best in the past 470 qualifying series over the last 100 years (behind Muttiah Muralitharan (15 for 57 in three Tests, Sri Lanka v Bangladesh, 2007), and Johnny Wardle (9 for 61 in four Tests, England v Pakistan, 1954)).
The deal-clincher: Joe Root has reached 50 three times in his last 20 Test innings, and converted all of those into centuries. He had reached 50 11 times in his previous 20 Test innings, but made no hundreds. His three recent hundreds have all been in the second innings – he had just one second-innings century in his first 73 Tests.