Test cricket re­turns – but Covid has put game on a dif­fer­ent path

➤ Biose­cure bub­ble and no crowd make se­ries like no other ➤ Pace bowlers may dic­tate against un­proven bat­ting

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport Cricket - By Nick Hoult CHIEF CRICKET COR­RE­SPON­DENT

At 11am, it would be apt if the English sea­son were to face one more de­lay be­cause of the light rain fore­cast to fall on the Ageas Bowl.

But at some point to­day the clouds will clear and either James An­der­son or Ke­mar Roach will run in with the new ball, and talk of biose­cu­rity, Covid-19 and swab tests will be re­placed by Eng­land’s quest to re­gain the Wis­den Tro­phy.

The world has changed greatly since Eng­land last played Test cricket, in Jo­han­nes­burg on Jan 27, and af­ter ev­ery­thing that has gone on, all will wel­come wor­ry­ing about more mun­dane mat­ters, such as bat­ting col­lapses, the lack of an ex­pe­ri­enced spin­ner and how will they one day re­place An­der­son?

The ab­sence of crowds will add an ex­tra layer of steril­ity to the biose­cure bub­ble the Eng­land and Wales Cricket Board has cre­ated at the ex­pense of sev­eral mil­lion pounds to en­sure this se­ries be­comes the first in­ter­na­tional team sport played since the lock­down.

Both sides will wear the Black Lives Mat­ter logo on their col­lars and Eng­land will make a “ges­ture” of sup­port be­fore play, which in nor­mal times would be an un­usual stray into life be­yond the bound­ary. It is still an im­por­tant de­vel­op­ment given English cricket’s aban­don­ment of the black pop­u­la­tion, but it is just one of sev­eral fac­tors that make to­day a unique oc­ca­sion.

This is the start of the #raisethe­bat se­ries named to hon­our key work­ers (and a handy way to cover up the fact there is no Test spon­sor) while a minute’s si­lence will be held to re­mem­ber the Bri­tish vic­tims of the coro­n­avirus pan­demic and also to pay trib­ute to the great Sir Ever­ton Weekes.

Ben Stokes said all the right things yes­ter­day in his pre-match press con­fer­ence, ex­ud­ing calm author­ity and re­spect. He thanked the ho­tel staff for look­ing af­ter the play­ers while ad­her­ing to strict biose­cure rules and re­vealed that Joe Root had left a note pinned to his Eng­land blazer say­ing: “Do it your own way.” No need, Joe. Stokes knows no other way.

At around 10.45am, Stokes will slip on that blazer for the toss with West Indies cap­tain Ja­son Holder. The world’s top two ranked all­rounders will not shake hands or swap teamsheets due to Covid-19 rules, and will con­test cricket’s first so­cially dis­tanced toss.

Once that is out of the way, we will be­gin to find out whether the strange cir­cum­stances of this se­ries will nul­lify home ad­van­tage that plays such a ma­jor role in Test cricket. West Indies beat Eng­land 2-1 in the Caribbean last year and won a fa­mous vic­tory at Head­in­g­ley on their last tour. But their away record has been woe­ful dur­ing decades of de­cline; they have won just two Tests in Eng­land in 20 years and only 11 over­seas in that pe­riod – seven of those against Bangladesh, Zim­babwe and Afghanista­n.

Eng­land’s bowlers are all fit and re­freshed and if they leave out Stu­art Broad, as ex­pected, and pair Mark Wood and Jofra Archer it will be a big step in their Ashes plan­ning. Pace will be key in Aus­tralia

and Wood and Archer need to be man­aged care­fully, pick­ing them also sends a mes­sage that Eng­land now have fire­power. There is healthy com­pe­ti­tion for places and Broad can ex­pect to be ro­tated now along with An­der­son, keep­ing them fresh to pick off a West Indies line-up that has only made 350 in the first in­nings of a Test 12 times in the last decade (and only twice since 2014).

West Indies are desperate to prove that a re­vival in Test cricket is stir­ring in the Caribbean, a hope fired by the emer­gence of a group of fast bowlers some com­pare to the greats of the past. Roach, Shan­non Gabriel, Alzarri Joseph and Holder re­duced their own bat­ting line-up to 49 for five last week and will rel­ish bowl­ing at Eng­land’s most in­ex­pe­ri­enced top four since Mike Ather­ton de­buted in the fifth Test of the 1989 Ashes se­ries.

The West Indies at­tack is led by Roach, who has 193 Test wick­ets, 41 per cent of which are top-three bats­men. No cur­rent bowler is better at knock­ing over the top or­der.

He should be backed up by three more quick bowlers, with Joseph the fi­nal ad­di­tion, ahead of spin­ner Rah­keem Corn­wall. It is pace that will win this se­ries, not spin in an English sum­mer. West Indies bowl with the Dukes ball at home now, too, and since the start of 2019 their pace at­tack has taken a wicket ev­ery seven overs at an av­er­age bet­tered only by In­dia.

Eng­land’s re­dis­cov­ered pa­tience and dis­ci­pline with the bat makes them better equipped to cope than their pre­vi­ous reliance on one-day bats­men and bat­ting all-rounders. “We are build­ing an iden­tity as a Test team,” Stokes said.

Joe Denly is for­tu­nate to be play­ing his 15th Test. At 34 and with Zak Craw­ley, Dan Lawrence and now James Bracey – all longer-term topthree prospects – he has to make a big score here, if only to give him­self the self-be­lief he be­longs at Test level af­ter years on the county beat.

He played within him­self in South Africa – knuck­ling down for the team – but needs to be a lit­tle more self­ish and trust his nat­u­ral in­stinct to play a few more shots. He has noth­ing to lose.

West Indies will rely heav­ily on the he­roes of Head­in­g­ley three years ago: Kraigg Brath­waite and Shai Hope. Both have failed to live up to those stan­dards since, with one-day cricket af­fect­ing Hope’s Test bat­ting. The weight of West Indies runs could be scored fur­ther down the or­der from Ros­ton Chase, Shane Dowrich and Holder, who were so in­stru­men­tal in the last se­ries win.

Be­fore Covid-19, Eng­land had care­fully plot­ted a path to the next Ashes, chart­ing out each se­ries as a pro­gres­sion along the way. This one has taken longer than ex­pected to hap­pen but at least it is tak­ing place at all, and, for many, that will mat­ter more than the re­sult.

Rest­ing up: Rah­keem Corn­wall takes a break as Jos But­tler (right) prac­tises his keep­ing

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