Sure, Jason Holder’s men had knocked off Joe Root’s side the previous time the teams met in early 2019. But a fragile batting line-up in English conditions seldom ends well for fans interested in gripping five-day contests. It was essentially the undercard, not only for the Pakistan series later in the summer but for the inaugural iteration of The Hundred, carefully rolled out in the one year in this current cycle of four where neither India nor Australia are here for Tests. With the European football championships thrown in, likewise the build-up to the Olympics, it was likely to be a Test series as Off-Broadway as they come.
Instead, when the clock strikes 11am BST on Wednesday morning, the whole cricketing world will be watching. And plenty more too, given this is the first England national team of any variety to take the field during this pandemic.
That it is during the crisis and not after means there will be nobody there – among other changes to the game itself – but the global appetite for anything resembling normality is profound. For evidence, look no further than the response to Australia’s cable television provider when it looked last week as though they would not be buying rights to the series – the backlash was ferocious. That New Zealand all-rounder Jimmy Neesham was tweeting at their own cricket broadcaster to make sure it would be beamed into his living room reinforced the point. We all need this.
But for the game’s decision-makers, it is more than this ingrained lust for bat and ball. If they didn’t appreciate already that sport wasn’t going to snap back to normal as soon as the Corona-curve flattened out a bit, they will now having seen the news from Melbourne.
A city that was routinely logging zero infections a couple of weeks ago, they are now back in full-scale lockdown for the next six weeks. If cricket is going to crack on until a vaccine is rolled out, it might need to be just as it is at the Rose Bowl and at Old Trafford over the next few weeks. It could serve as the blueprint for months, or even (gulp), years.
Much has been made of how the players will adapt to empty stands. Stuart Broad was candid, noting he’s sought the support of a psychologist to help him find the drive that a big crowd has provided him at home over many years. But the other side of that coin is the potential advantage that this will give players who haven’t yet had the experience of playing in front of a boozy grandstand on a hot, midsummer afternoon. Take Dom Sibley, who debuted over the winter where crowds were more in line with his experience at Surrey and, now, Warwickshire. And he’s used his time in isolation well, dropping some 12 kilograms.
“I’ve been working quite hard in lockdown and I feel as lot fitter,” he said ahead of his home debut. “Being in Sri Lanka for the first time in my career I felt a little bit self-conscious about my physique and my weight, just seeing how fit some of the senior guys are and how impressive they are in training. I just remember sitting on the plane thinking I need to do something, especially during lockdown when we couldn’t improve anything cricket-related. It was an opportunity for me to improve that side of my game and I’m glad to have been able to stick to it. I’ve had taps on the shoulder before and haven’t really done anything about it. I think it was overdue having that wake-up call and a good lesson for me.”
When play is called, most comforting will be when these usual debates return. Soon enough, the novelty will make way for the usual rhythms of a Test Match – of heroes being made and heads on chopping blocks and all the rest. The serious task of keeping all involved healthy will continue, with those notes being furiously taken from interested onlookers abroad, but cricket people will talk cricket and what a joy that will be. It will be summer, at last.