Root ready to inspire fightback to protect unbeaten home run
Captain returns to Test side at venue where he averages 85 West Indies seek first Test series win in England since 1988
The gaping hole at Emirates Old Trafford where the gigantic “party stand” is erected every summer offers a stark reminder that we are living in different times.
West Indies will have the opportunity this week to show we are entering a new era on the field, too, as they chase their first Test series win in England since 1988 and anywhere in the world against topquality opposition (in other words, not Zimbabwe, or Bangladesh before they improved) for a quarter of a century.
Joe Root returns to captain England looking to avert their first home Test series defeat since the loss to Sri Lanka in 2014 that nearly precipitated Alastair Cook’s resignation as captain.
England are on an unbeaten run of 11 series and Root will press ahead to the next Ashes in 2021-22 regardless of this result. His return increases England’s chances of levelling the series at a ground where he averages 85 and made his highest Test score. But England have to level matters against a team better prepared than them, particularly Root, who did not play in the intrasquad warm-up and has not batted in the middle since March 13. West Indies spent almost a month training in Manchester before the series, and played two practice matches on the ground, so are better versed with the conditions.
England have had only an incomplete net session outdoors since arriving in Manchester on Monday. They were not happy with one of the net pitches on Tuesday after a ball reared up off a length from Jofra Archer to Ben Stokes, and so moved indoors. Then it rained all morning yesterday, forcing them back to the indoor school again.
They twice delayed naming their squad, giving a general sense of uncertainty over their thinking before announcing that James Anderson and Mark Wood would be rested. Stuart Broad returns and with a cloudy day forecast today both sides will probably look to bowl first. The wet weather in Manchester has dampened the pitch and is expected to have taken some of the usual sting out of it, so Wood and his extra pace will be missed. Chris Woakes will add depth to the batting and is likely to be the third of three changes, the other being Root for Joe Denly.
West Indies captain Jason Holder and head coach Phil Simmons have been keeping their players’ feet on the ground since the win at the Ageas Bowl, but also enjoying the acclaim back home. On Tuesday night, Holder was on a radio show in Barbados along with prime ministers from three islands, showing how united the region is behind the captain. “The reception we’ve got, not only from the heads of government but the people of the Caribbean, has been tremendous,” said Holder. “This Covid period has put a dampener on things for the world, and things like cricket, especially in the Caribbean, unify.”
Holder has constructed a team in his own image, helped, according to his friend Carlos Brathwaite, by moving on from the stars – such as Chris Gayle – who had so many runins with the West Indies board and had lost their passion for Test cricket. Holder cannot be undermined by players more senior than him any more and has surrounded himself with a group who graduated together from the West Indies academy and are committed to Test cricket. The unusual circumstances of this tour have played into their hands. By having extra reserves in case of a Covid outbreak they were able to draft Shannon Gabriel in as a spare bowler. They were then able to promote him when he proved his fitness in the Manchester training camp, and he responded with nine wickets and a man-of-the-match performance in the first Test.
The expanded squad and isolated living conditions have enabled Holder and Simmons to work with fringe players, giving them a clear idea of what they expect from Test players. Gabriel should play again this week, with West Indies expected to name the same XI.
History is on their side: only once since 2008 has a team come back to win after losing the first Test of a three-match series, and it has happened just eight times this century. The bad news for West Indies is that one of those occasions was in 2007, the last time they went 1-0 up in an away series.
Ben Stokes hands over to Root after becoming the first England captain to lose his first Test since Michael Vaughan 17 years ago. There are shades of Vaughan about Stokes, particularly his astute manmanagement skills. He spent time with Broad the night he was told he was dropped and his arm around Archer as the teams took the field on the final day was noticeable. Archer responded with his best spell for nearly a year.
Denly’s Test career is over, with no realistic way back for a 34-yearold left out after 15 matches. Root was generous in his praise but it is time to move on, with Zak Crawley batting at three.
There is always a player under pressure. It moves on rotation through the team. Now it is Jos Buttler who needs a good match on his home ground.
Ed Smith backed Denly and Buttler to be Test players, so he, too, will be anxious this week. Smith plucked Buttler out of the Indian Premier League in 2018, saying: “Jos playing his way has the potential to be a really positive force.” It is time for that force to come good.