Ollie Pope and Jos Buttler made their first big scores of the series in putting on an unbeaten stand of 136 runs to rebuild England's innings against the West Indies and put the hosts on top on day one of the deciding test at Old Trafford this morning.
England recovered from 122-4 just before tea to close on 258-4, with Pope on 91 as he goes in search of his second test century and Buttler on 56.
Both players were under pressure to deliver in the third test after underwhelming performances so far in this series. Buttler, in particular, is feeling the heat from Ben Foakes for the wicketkeeper position and a first half-century in tests since September justified the selectors' backing of the limited-overs specialist.
Buttler smashed recalled spinner Rahkeem Cornwall for two sixes in the same over — one over deep midwicket and the other over long-on — but otherwise stayed measured and largely restrained in a 120-ball knock. His one and only test century came two years ago against India.
Pope, whose highest score in this series was 12, compiled his runs quicker — a rarity for a batsman alongside Buttler — and struck 11 fours before bad light stopped play for the day about 10 minutes before the scheduled end in Manchester.
“It does feel like a little bit of weight off my shoulders,” Pope said. "Obviously with the pandemic, we haven’t played cricket in a long time and to miss out in the first three innings and be in such an intense environment, you're not able to get out and see our families. You just go back to your room.
“I have found that a little bit challenging.”
Pope is playing in his 10th test, averages 47, and already has a test century against South Africa at Port Elizabeth in January.
Former England captain Michael Vaughan has described Pope as the country's best young player since Joe Root.
“It’s a massive compliment, especially from an ex-captain and one of the greats," Pope said. "I take it as a massive positive. I don’t necessarily see it as added pressure, it’s just a nice thing to have said about you and hopefully I can fill those shoes.”
Before Pope and Buttler came together, the wisdom of England deploying a truncated batting lineup and including four fast bowlers along with a spinner was being questioned.
Dom Sibley (0) departed off the sixth ball of the day after playing across Kemar Roach and getting trapped lbw, and captain Joe Root, attempting a quick single, was run out by Roston Chase's direct throw for 17 just before lunch.
When Ben Stokes — promoted to No. 4 and playing as a specialist batsman — was bowled through the gate by Roach for 20, England was 92-3 and its batting lineup was suddenly looking wafer thin.
Rory Burns (57) then edged Chase to slip, where the burly Cornwall took a brilliant, instinctive one-handed catch.
England responded well, though, and moved into a strong position — weather permitting — to win a series that is poised at 1-1.
The Windies, who won the first test in Southampton, are looking to capture a test series in England for the first time since 1988.
Roach has 2-56 off 18.4 overs, and needs one more wicket for 200 in tests, but there is a concern that the team might fade after making just one change to its lineup all series.
Paceman Shannon Gabriel started for the third straight match and spent some time off the field with an apparent hamstring strain after pulling up during his fourth over. He returned, to the relief of captain Jason Holder, but was yet to take a wicket.
Cornwall, a specialist spinner, was 0-71 off his 21 overs and was starting to get picked off by Pope and Buttler before the new ball arrived after 80 overs.
Stokes, the star of the second test won by England in Manchester, is struggling for full fitness and is unlikely to bowl this match.
England has plenty of pace in its artillery, however, with Jofra Archer and James Anderson recalled to join Stuart Broad and Chris Woakes in the attack.