At last a Test match to preview. How do we go about that? It’s the clash of the great all-rounder captains, Jason Holder and Ben Stokes. Holder, ranked No 1 in the ICC all-rounder stats and about to embark on his 33rd Test as captain, is confronted by Stokes, ranked No 2 and leading England for the first time.
The goal of Stokes and his team is to win back the Wisden Trophy, held by West Indies after their 2-1 victory in the Caribbean last year. Can West Indies win a series in England for the first time since 1988?
This may not be the way to start. The most remarkable thing about this Test series is that it is happening at all. Acknowledge straightaway this has been driven by financial necessity and the arcane contracts between broadcasters and boards that keep the game afloat. The advent of this series is not a simple act of altruism to entertain the masses.
Yet there is much to celebrate. First, West Indies are here. When they opted to come, the UK had the second highest number of deaths from Covid-19 in the world. They were prepared to forsake the relative serenity of Barbados, the home of the majority of the squad, where there have been seven coronavirus-related deaths, to come to England. It would have been easier and understandable had they quickly ruled out any notion of crossing the Atlantic.
Credit is also due to the England and Wales Cricket Board, urgent and flexible in its determination to deliver some Test cricket. The plans to provide biosecure environments for the players are complex and detailed. At times precautions seem to be taken to ridiculous lengths but this had to be the case to persuade the government and the tourists every eventuality was covered. The ECB has also ensured its own players have accepted the monastic conditions that apply for the three Tests.
The outcome is likely to be a stilted version of Test cricket but it is better than nothing. The prospect of an empty stadium is gruesome. So, too, is the notion of piping in crowd noise. Let’s broadcast the reality. Cricket, like M*A*S*H, is surely better without the canned laughter/cheering.
Despite all the handicaps there is a weird sense of anticipation. The biggest challenge for the players is to have us all contemplating the cricket and the outcome of the series rather than forever fretting about biosecurity, the lack of atmosphere or the result of the latest swab test.
Let us revisit the cricket. From an England perspective it seems odd that Holder should be rated higher than Stokes, who had such a titanic 2019. The most interesting point of contrast will be their captaincy, the one area where Holder is vastly more experienced.
It will be intriguing to see Stokes take charge. Clearly he knows the game and has the respect of his team, which is a good start. The critical question, unlikely to be answered in one Test, is what impact the captaincy may have on his performance.
Will the barnstorming all-rounder be shackled like some of his predecessors? I have mentioned Ian Botham in this regard recently; a counterbalance might be Alastair Cook (albeit not as an all-rounder). When he was a temporary replacement for Andrew Strauss in Bangladesh in 2010, Cook scored 173 in the first match and an unbeaten 109 in the second.
England are heavy favourites given their recent record against West Indies at home. It is surprising the last West Indies series victory here was as long ago as 1988. In the 90s there were two drawn series, which were sufficient for West Indies to retain the Wisden Trophy. Since then, England have won every series on home turf.
Both sides are likely to be most anxious about their batting lineups. England are missing their best player, Joe Root, on paternity leave, so whoever occupies the top-four positions, they have a combination unlikely to intimidate the opposition.
West Indies also look frail in this department. Darren Bravo and Shimron Hetmyer exercised their right not to tour. Of late, neither Shai Hope nor Kraigg Brathwaite have been able to match their heroic efforts at Headingley in 2017. Hope’s only Test hundreds were in that match at Leeds and he averages a meagre 27 ; Brathwaite has not reached 50 in his past 21 Test innings.
The bowling has potential, especially since Shannon Gabriel has returned to full fitness. A combination of Gabriel, Kemar Roach, Alzarri Joseph and Holder has obvious potential. As does England’s lineup, whichever combination they choose.
Stokes will be spared one conundrum as England settle on their final XI because Ed Smith’s decision to limit the squad to 13 reduces options. The prospect of Jofra Archer and Mark Wood in the same side is alluring but that would probably mean dropping Stuart Broad for the first time since 2012 in this country (he was genuinely rested once).
It looks as if the debate over the identity of the top-four has been postponed until the second Test when one will be jettisoned as Root returns. It will be a pleasure to debate such matters rather than the state of England’s biosecurity.