England v West Indies: 1st Test Preview

You might hear International cricket returns on Wednesday, but really Wednesday marks a beginning. This will be the start of cricket in the COVID-19 era. The first test will take place at Southampton’s Ageas Bowl in a bio-secure environment thanks to an unprecedented logistical operation by the ECB and their events director Steve Elworthy.

The fixtures are to be fulfilled at just two venues – Manchester’s Old Trafford and the Ageas Bowl – by virtue of them being the two Test Match grounds with onsite hotels and thereby capable of accommodating all players, support staff, officials and media.

The West Indies should be commended for not only taking part in the series, considering the unknown disproportional effects of COVID-19 on the BAME population, but further knowing how severe the pandemic has been in the UK.

The series offers up an interesting match-up. The Windies shocked the visiting English in 2019 to take a memorable 2-1 series victory which included a double century from captain Jason Holder and an unlikely 8 wicket haul from Roston Chase.

They bring with them not just fancy new slipovers but a dangerous pace attack where the pace of Alzarri Joseph and Shannon Gabriel back up the captain Holder and the excellent Kemar Roach. Should he play, viewers eyes will also be alerted to off-spinning allrounder Rahkeem Cornwall – the heaviest test cricketer on record – but comparisons to cult hero Dwayne Leverock end there. Cornwall is a serious cricketer in his own right and already has a test 10 wicket match hall.

Anyone who watched the Headingley test on 2017 will remember Shai Hope’s twin hundreds which Kraigg Brathwaite so nearly equalled. At the time it seemed the two would go on to excel and carry the West Indian batting order which seems in perennial decline. First left Lara, then Sarwan, Gayle and Chanderpaul – none of which have been replaced.

However, since that test neither player has notched another century and with it the top order has struggled. That top order will not be helped by the (understandable) decisions of Bravo and Hetmyer not to tour and face the daunting prospect of a fully fit England bowling attack.

That English bowling attack is well stocked and this summer we may finally be able to see Mark Wood and Jofra Archer tear in together. Perhaps touring batsmen may well have packed that extra chest pad. If they are to play together it would require England to break up the Broad-Anderson partnership. Though they have rarely played together in the last 18 months, that has so far been because of injury or the unresponsive dust bowls of Sri Lanka. It remains unlikely the two will play all six back to back tests and unlikely that they will be around as a pair for much longer.

We say that every summer though. As far back as 2013 there were questions over how long the great Jimmy Anderson could carry on. Seven years later, not only is he still going, he is still the most feared bowler with a Duke ball. Broad too is seemingly always written off or undervalued yet it isn’t all that clear why (no doubt David Warner could attest).

Maybe it is because we supporters like to pigeon-hole players based on a small set of attributes. By such analysis it is easy to note how Broad doesn’t swing the ball as much as Anderson or Woakes nor have the pace of Archer and Wood. But by focusing on this we trivialise Test cricket when really we should celebrate and savour two modern greats who still set the standard.

A sub-plot to the summer will be whether Anderson can take 16 wickets to take him past 600 in tests which would be a remarkable achievement. In 1964, after becoming the first bowler to notch 300 Fred Trueman was asked whether he thought his record would aver be beaten. “Aye, but whoever does will be bloody tired” he responded dryly. It is an indication of Anderson’s drive then that nearing his 38th Birthday some of his fitness scores are improving. This is an athlete with no intentions of drifting quietly into retirement.

The first test will also give hero of 2019 Ben Stokes his first taste of captaincy whilst Joe Root takes paternity leave. Good judges predict Stokes’ cricketing intelligence will make the step up a smooth one and so Root’s absence may be felt more in the batting department. The selectors have kept faith in Joe Denly at number three and Zack Crawley will likely slot in at four, meaning both will want to score heavily to secure selection when Root returns. Fans will also want to see if Ollie Pope can continue his dazzling form from the winter and add to his maiden test century. Few would bet against it.

Despite the absence of crowd chatter, the series is not short of talking points and it is encouraging to see that both teams will voice their support for the Black Lives Matter Campaign. Players from both sides have been active opponents of racial discrimination in the game and the ECB would be wise to listen. The paucity of state-educated professional black cricketers in England cannot be down to a lack of talent and questions remain higher up where a ‘jobs for the boys’ culture has enabled ex-players who were part of rebel tours to apartheid South Africa to take up top managerial jobs. English cricket is currently blessed with a diverse men’s squad but the uncomfortable atmosphere within the game (as described by numerous BAME players) suggests that is more by accident than design and more needs to be done to challenge conscious and unconscious bias to ensure the game continues to be for all.