Jonny Bairstow and Moeen Ali dig deep to keep England alive in series

Moeen Ali and Ben Foakes provided a steadying stand AFP

It was, for sure, a bruising day for England.

By the end of it, five of their batsmen had suffered blows while batting and their chances of clawing their way back into the series had receded sharply. Sides who score 187 in the first innings don't win many games.

But maybe a glance at the scorecard doesn't tell the whole story. It doesn't tell us what a par score might have been in this first innings - Kemar Roach reckoned 250 - and it doesn't reflect how difficult batting was at the start of the day, in particular.

First-class cricket tends to be at its most entertaining when ball holds a slight advantage over bat. Nothing is more likely to drive spectators away than games where 600 is followed by 700, and we have seen, in previous Antigua Test matches, several very slow, flat wickets which have encouraged horribly attritional cricket. So we have to be careful when criticising surfaces that try to redress that balance.

But you want to retain meritocracy. And here, as some balls leapt from a length, you wondered if that was still the case. Nobody was seriously suggesting the Test be abandoned - it wasn't anywhere near that bad - but it wasn't especially safe and it wasn't especially good. There really wasn't a great deal Joe Root could have done to avoid the ball that reared and struck him on the gloves on its way to the slip cordon. It's probably reasonable to expect a bit better than that.

Both sides are on the same pitch, though. And while you suspect winning the toss was quite an advantage - the pitch seemed slightly damp on a length at the start - England have to accept it is not so long ago that they won eight tosses in a row. Rough with the smooth, and all that. This was not unfair.

And maybe England failed to harness the conditions in quite the same way when they bowled, anyway. Only two deliveries in the first eight overs of West Indies' reply would have hit the stumps and one of those was a leg-stump half-volley. Clearly that is a very rough guide for measuring the quality of bowling, but it does underline the impression that England failed to make the batsmen play as often as they might. Root confirmed he, too, would have inserted had he won the toss, but would his bowlers have taken advantage?

It will be fascinating to see how this pitch plays on day two. One theory is that it will have dried out and eased a little. But the manner in which Stuart Broad gained lift and Sam Curran gained swing suggested there was still plenty of life in the evening session and England felt the extra grass and slight ridge in the surface would prove relevant throughout. West Indies may yet regret not using the heavy roller ahead of their innings: had they done so, the indentations created in the first innings might have been rolled out. As it is, they may now have been baked into the pitch for the rest of the game.

But evidence from the England innings suggested the ball became a bit softer - and as a consequence, a bit easier to bat against - after about 40 overs. West Indies' openers have done a fine job in seeing them to stumps without loss.

That England remain in the game is largely due to counter-attacking half-centuries from Jonny Bairstow and Moeen Ali. If Bairstow's was little surprise - he seems to be at his best when doubted or under pressure - Moeen was a most unlikely hero.

This was only his second half-century since the start of the Ashes in November 2017, after all. In the 12 Tests - and 24 innings - since, he had averaged just 17.56 and suffered five ducks including a 'pair' in Barbados. Since the start of England's winter tours, the downturn had become even more pronounced: he came into this Test averaging 9.75 from four Tests.

And, sure enough, the first few balls of his innings promised little. Clearly wary of the short ball, he was reluctant to get forward. And when the short ball did come, his attempt to hook seemed just a little hurried. His first three balls from Shannon Gabriel, who really has developed into a fine strike bowler, saw him snatch a hook just short of two fielders out for the stroke before being struck on the helmet.

But he got back in line every time and he battled through. And when, at last, Roach and Gabriel gave way to Roston Chase and Jason Holder - offering just a little respite - his policy of calculated aggression was perfectly reasonable. Twenty-eight of his runs came against the pair, while he scored just three against Gabriel.

Yes, the end looked ugly - he spooned a catch to mid-on - but that variable bounce probably made the stroke look worse than it was. This was a welcome return to form from Moeen and a reminder of his value. He may never be reliable and he may sometimes infuriate, but his seventh-wicket stand of 85 with the admirable Ben Foakes is, at present, the only partnership in the game worth more than 30.

Bairstow's innings felt more secure. He appears to be adapting to the demands on the No. 3 position - notably playing and leaving the moving ball - very well. In particular, he is waiting for the ball to come to him a little more and resisting the urge to push for it. While the percentage of boundaries in his innings was eye-catching - 42 of his first 50 came from such shots - it was his judgement in leaving the ball outside off stump that allowed him to attack anything he felt was over-pitched or short. By the time he made his half-century, he had scored 51 of England's total of 71 for 4 and he was the only man in the top six to reach 15.

You suspect he did not much mind donning the keeping gloves again, either. Foakes sustained a blow to the right hand in the process of being dismissed: an attempted pull resulting only in an awkward deflection off his gloves on to the stumps

"I'm chuffed with the way I played," Bairstow said later. "There's not a tougher day-one pitch I've batted on that springs to mind, though there are different types of tough. But seeing as I've only played three Tests batting at No.3, it was an innings that was definitely up there. I was pleased with how my defence is improving. I've been working on that."

Several of his colleagues could learn from his approach. While nearly all of them received fine deliveries, nearly all might feel they could have done a little better. Jos Buttler edged a prod, for example, while Rory Burns edged one that bounced a little. Both might have been better served leaving the ball.

But these were tough conditions, expertly harnessed by West Indies' relentless four-man seam attack. While Ben Stokes, too, might reflect he could have left the ball that dismissed him, it was delivered from very wide on the crease, around the wicket from Gabriel. Angled in sharply to the batsman, it drew a stroke before leaving him off the pitch. It was, by any standards, a fine piece of bowling and desperately tough to negate for a batsman.

It is for that reason England are, just about, still in this game. If conditions remain the same, they have the opportunity to use them in the same manner on day two. It promises to be a key day in this series.