The sun came just before lunch, breaking the blanket of cloud which had looked so encouraging as England started the day. “We’re here to score runs, take wickets and win games – and we like to do all three as quickly as we can,” enthused Ben Stokes in the programme, and after winning the toss and taking the briefest glance at the concrete-grey slab that hung over the ground there seemed no doubt that his quickest route to victory lay through unleashing his bowlers to cause chaos with a new ball and a green-tinged pitch.
But England weren’t just here for that, given they had very deliberately decided not to select the team that would be most likely to take wickets and win the game as quickly as possible. A minor groin strain and an abundance of caution meant Jimmy Anderson would have no chance here to add to his 685 Test wickets, and the recent memory of an ankle problem was enough to rule out Ollie Robinson.
Chris Woakes, who has taken 27 wickets at an average of 11.33 in five previous games at Lord’s for his country, has no fitness difficulties and seemed pretty convinced as late as Wednesday afternoon that he would be making his first Test appearance in 14 months, was left out on the basis that, as Stokes explained, “everyone knows what he offers”.
No, England weren’t primarily here to score runs or take wickets. They were here to go through the motions, to hone their competitive edge with an eye on the Ashes, to ease Jonny Bairstow back into the team after injury and to assess the one member of the side who retained an air of mystery. Stokes chose to bowl and the stage was set: this would be Tongue’s test.
Josh Tongue collected his cap from Anderson before play and the ball and a pat on the back from Stuart Broad as he prepared for his first over. Before he starts his run-up, his left hand reaches across his chest to deliver the ball to his right and then stays there as if held in a sling as he pounds his way towards the crease. He is, of course, familiar with slings, having endured two failed operations on his right shoulder, and 14 months out of the game, before a doctor suggested that Botox injections may alleviate the pressure on a trapped nerve that was causing near-constant pain. He is not the first person to be rejuvenated by Botox, but rarely can its effect have been more convincing. If he uses his time here to seek advice from Anderson, 15 years his senior, perhaps Tongue can offer some in return on how it feels to seriously consider retirement.
From the start and throughout Tongue’s pace was good, edging occasionally beyond 90mph, and his accuracy likewise. He started with a maiden, and then another. Just before lunch he came back with instructions to bowl short at James McCollum, allowing the captain to assess another facet of his game and the batter to repeatedly duck out of the way, and those appeared to remain his orders throughout the following session. This tactic never seemed the most likely method of taking wickets as quickly as possible, but then that wasn’t the point.
By mid-afternoon every bowler had a wicket but Tongue, and if there was no sign of desperation in the way he bowled perhaps there was in the way he appealed for lbw when another short ball glanced off Curtis Campher’s helmet and deflected to Bairstow. Stokes had already burned two reviews, including one when an excellent delivery from Tongue forced McCollum into awkward evasive action and flicked what turned out to be a pocket on its way through. As the players huddled to consider another, the captain was notably absent, Stokes timing his arrival for the moment the DRS timer ticked to zero and providing once there only consolation.
Tongue bowled only three more overs, and not at all after tea. So there was no moment of celebration and vindication to crown Tongue’s first day as a Test cricketer, but plenty of positives to take from it (particularly for the old family friend who collected £50,000 courtesy of a bet he placed back in 2009 that the then 11-year-old would one day represent his country). A player who 12 months ago was considering his career in the past tense is now one for the future.
But in the end it was Broad, courtesy of a 20th five-wicket haul in Tests, who stood out. He did so as he took the field, the only player wearing a bright white wide-brimmed hat while all around him chose caps, and he did so as he departed, when he was the one holding the ball in the air while all around him applauded. Perhaps everyone knows what he offers, but sometimes the same old answers are also the right ones.