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
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