Sport writer Owain Pryce looks ahead to the return of test cricket as England take on the West Indies behind closed doors next month
July sees the return to test cricket to English shores, with the West Indies set for a three-match series, but not as we know it. Quarantine periods, no spectators and bigger squads will characterise the game in the post-lockdown era, as cricket attempts to bring content to the fans without endangering players and others associated with the game.
England have named 30-man squad to prepare for the series in Southampton. It includes a blend of established names, returning players with points to prove, and a crop of young talent eager to take advantage of this unprecedented situation. The West Indies are bringing a 26-man squad for the first test at the Ageas Bowl in Southampton, followed by the second and third matches at Old Trafford in Manchester.
The unorthodox schedule is based around creating what the England Cricket Board have described as a ‘bio-secure environment.’ Both of these venues have on-site accommodation, as well as sufficient space for practice and social distancing for those involved. Another oddity is that practice matches will have to be held in house, hence the larger than normal squads.
England’s test side are going into this series hoping to recapture the momentum created by their success in South Africa back in January. At the time, there was a sense of optimism around the team, and despite the tour of Sri Lanka in March being cancelled due to the pandemic, the side have a chance to continue to develop, as well as to avenge the series loss in the Caribbean last year.
There are a number of selection issues throughout the side that will need to be ironed out over the series. At the top of the order, Rory Burns’ return from injury means that there is a decision to make. Do England drop one of the incumbent openers, despite youngsters Dom Sibley and Zac Crawley impressing on the South African tour? Alternatively, does Joe Denly lose his place at number three, having spent a year in the test team without cementing his position? Burns looked to be an opener who could survive at the highest level before his injury and would be disappointed if he did feature heavily in the series.
In the middle order, captain Joe Root and his deputy Ben Stokes are normally two of the first names on the team sheet. However, with Root possibly having to miss the start of the series due to the birth of his child, the question of captaincy might rear its head once more. Vice-captain Stokes would be an obvious replacement, but many former players are nervous that loading too much pressure onto England’s star man could have an adverse effect on his form. Parallels have been drawn with great all-rounders of the past, Andrew Flintoff and Sir Ian Botham, both of whom struggled in the role. With the captain’s importance so often discussed, this is not a decision the selectors should take lightly, even if it is only for one Test.
The position of wicketkeeper is one that has not been set in stone for over a year now, with Ben Foakes, Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow all having been in possession of the gloves. There have been numerous times where Buttler and Bairstow have both made the final XI. In fact, all three played together in Sri Lanka at the end of 2018. Despite this, in South Africa, the policy under coach Chris Silverwood seemed to be that only one would make the team, with Buttler that man. Yet he has not been able to transfer his dazzling white ball ability into the Test arena. Consequently, with this rare opportunity to see all three candidates training together in the upcoming weeks, it would not be a surprise to see more changes in this position.
Bowling has long been England’s strong suit led by the elder statesmen of the side, James Anderson and Stuart Broad. For some time now, there has been the question of whether these two England greats should be rested to increase their longevity at this level – an argument only bolstered by Anderson’s injury woes of the last 12 months. With three consecutive matches and four days between each one, rotation is likely to become a fact of life for the seamers, allowing the management and fans alike to see what the future of the Test team looks like.
Since his debut in the Ashes last summer, Jofra Archer has shown strong signs that he could potentially pick up the hefty burden that Anderson and Broad will leave behind. A series against his native West Indies will give him extra incentive to continue building his game, at a level where he is still fairly inexperienced. Another lightening quick bowler in the group is Mark Wood, who began to show his best form in South Africa, taking his 12 wickets at an average of under 14. Searing pace has long been missing from England’s attack, but in Archer and Wood, along with looming talents Olly Stone, Saqib Mahmood, and Jamie Overton, they now have a set of very fast bowlers capable of competing with a battery of West Indian quicks.
As with the rest of the side, there are selection questions around the role of the spinner. Moeen Ali is back in the squad after a winter away but returns to increased competition. Jack Leach was seemingly number one, although a spell out of the side due to illness has allowed Somerset teammate Dom Bess to show his capabilities in the role. All three have a strong case for starting the First Test in Southampton.
It is fair to say that, even without the presence of a global pandemic, this is a fascinating series based on cricket alone. There is also the potential for a strong stance to be taken against racism, following the protests across the world over the past weeks. These two cricketing nations, between whom race relations have always been a major factor within the sport, have an opportunity to present a strong message to an expectant audience across the world, as well as to provide some enthralling cricket.
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