It has been a long wait for cricket to return amid the coronavirus pandemic. Over 100 days have passed since the last international contest was played and the comeback of the sport has been greatly anticipated across the globe. England will host the West Indies in the first of a three-match Test series at the Ageas Bowl in Hampshire.
The home side will be without the services of Joe Root as he attends the birth of his second child. Ben Stokes will lead England for the first time in his absence, while there will be a battle to replace the skipper at number four in the batting order. England found their form in Test cricket before the lockdown and will be determined to continue their resurgence under the tenure of Chris Silverwood on home soil.
The West Indies travel to England in possession of the Wisden Trophy. Jason Holder’s men defeated England in their last Test series in the Caribbean. There are a lot of promising young players beginning to develop, but their mettle will be tested by the Three Lions.
The Windies have not won a Test series in England since 1988. They were beaten 2-1 on their last visit two years ago, making Root’s men work for their victory by taking the series into a decider. Holder and company will be hopeful of going one further this time around to leave the country still in possession of the Wisden Trophy.
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England produced a watershed moment during the winter by defeating South Africa on the road. They were defeated in the opening Test of the series but battled back to win three matches on the bounce.
Root was under pressure to deliver a victory after failing to regain the Ashes last summer and losing to New Zealand. He and his team responded with a fine series of performances after an initial setback, but now need to carry that momentum forward into the summer. Root’s absence in the first Test will give Stokes an opportunity to enhance his leadership skills. He has not captained England before and will be under the spotlight to set the tone for the series.
Stokes does have a lot of talent around him, with the bowling ranks full to the brim. James Anderson and Stuart Broad will lead the attack, leaving Jofra Archer, Mark Wood and Sam Curran to battle it out for the final seamers’ spot.
Jack Leach or Dominic Bess will be in line for the spin role. Leach was the man in possession, but after missing the tour of South Africa after contracting sepsis, Bess took the reins and performed well in the circumstances. The selectors may opt to keep faith with the younger option in Bess to aid his development.
The batting unit also has a depth of options. Dom Sibley and Zak Crawley displayed resilience against the Proteas. Rory Burns should return alongside Sibley, pushing Crawley down the order. Joe Denly may hang on to his place in Root’s absence, although newcomer Dan Lawrence has potential.
The only other decision comes at the wicket-keeping spot where Jos Buttler, Jonny Bairstow and Ben Foakes are vying for one place. Neither Buttler nor Bairstow has performed against the red ball of late, which could pave the way for Foakes to start.
The West Indies have been a mercurial team over the past 25 years. They have been capable of brilliance at home, but at the same time they have been just as susceptible to producing dire displays on the road.
Holder’s side eased past Afghanistan in India last November. However, they were previously crushed by India in a three-match series. Their record against the leading nations in the world since 2000 has been poor to say the least. The Windies are looking for a breakthrough moment and the lack of preparation due to the pandemic may give them the opportunity to catch England cold.
Holder will be without three players, including Shimron Hetmyer, as they opted to withdraw from the tour amid the uncertainty regarding coronavirus. Kraigg Brathwaite and Shai Hope both impressed on their last visit of England.
Hope notably scored two centuries in the Windies’ triumph at Headingley in 2017. The 26-year-old has the talent to become a rock in the middle order. However, he has yet to produce the consistency in the Test arena that he has displayed in the one-day format. Brathwaite will be key at the top of the order to counteract the new ball. The success of these two batsmen could well decide the opener and the series.
The Windies’ bowling attack is becoming a potent threat. Kemar Roach leads the unit and has a formidable record since 2017. He along with Holder will give the England batsmen a tough time. Their performances will be vital in keeping their side in the contest. Alzarri Joseph is the rising star of the group. The 23-year-old could be one to watch, using his express pace that could surprise his opponents.
Conditions look to be fine for the start of the contest and heading into the weekend. Therefore there should be five days of play. As for the pitch at the Ageas Bowl, it’s difficult to say. There has been no cricket on the wicket since last September. The groundsman has had ample time and should produce a wicket that will see benefits for both disciplines.
Even without Root England should have enough quality to see off the threat of the Windies. The Three Lions are unbeaten at home in Test series since 2014. They will be keen to kick off their campaign with a victory. Their record at the Ageas Bowl is impressive, winning two out of the three matches to be played at the venue.
Anderson, Broad and Archer should be able to drive them through the West Indies batting line-up. There is enough quality in their batting ranks to muster enough runs. Look for Ollie Pope and Burns to take centre stage with Root absent. Roach, Holder and Joseph can be a nuisance, but it will not be enough for the tourists in the opener.