Test cricket is back. England begin their three-Test series against the West Indies today at the Ageas Bowl in the first international fixture since the world went into lockdown back in March. Much has changed since then, both in the world of cricket and the world more generally, and that will certainly be evident in Southampton. The lack of a crowd will be the most obvious difference, but elbow bumps and a saliva ban represent two other clues that all is not completely normal.
Here, we preview the first Test match of the summer by taking a closer look at some of the series opener’s key questions.
One of the most intriguing sub-plots at play during this first Test is the absence of England’s regular captain, Joe Root. In his place, Ben Stokes will captain England for the first time in any format, and it will be fascinating to see how he leads the side. Stokesy will look to lead by example, and there are no players better placed in the side to do that. In fact, he has already done that countless times over the past twelve months, inspiring unlikely England victories and dragging the team along when it’s needed it most.
Of course, giving star all-rounders the captaincy doesn’t always work; both Andrew Flintoff and Ian Botham struggled to assert themselves in their usual ways with the added responsibility, but could Stokesy buck the trend? He has been vice-captain for over a year now, and is already a central decision-maker on the field in that role. Some players thrive on pressure, and Stokes showed us all last year just how well he performs in those crucial moments. World Cup winner, Ashes saviour, England captain.
Some questions answered
England’s squad for the first Test was announced on Saturday, putting to bed a significant amount of the speculation surrounding the first playing XI of the summer. With thirteen men in the squad and a further nine in reserve, we now have a much clearer idea as to how close various players are to the Test side. Question marks remain in the seam-bowling department, with what looks like a three-way tussle for two spots. If Anderson and Broad’s inclusion is a given – and you would expect it to be initially – then Woakes, Archer, and Wood will be contesting that final spot. We have, as yet, heard nothing from the England camp to suggest that any of those men are in pole position. Wood is the man in possession, but exactly how much that counts for after five months without cricket remains to be seen.
Dom Bess has also been given the nod ahead of Jack Leach and Moeen Ali as the first-choice spinner. Leach is one of nine in reserve, while Moeen joins Jonny Bairstow in leaving the Ageas Bowl’s bio-secure environment. Neither have been included in the Test squad or the reserve group, and will join up with England’s white-ball squad at the end of July.
Finally, speculation about England’s batting order has temporarily been put on hold. Zak Crawley and Joe Denly look set to join Rory Burns and Dom Sibley at the top of the order, with no other potential top-four batsmen in the thirteen. England could cram an additional seamer in there in place of either Kent man, but that would mean Stokes or Pope moving up to number four and Buttler filling in at six. Chances are, the top seven is already set in stone.
Possible XI: Burns, Sibley, Crawley, Denly, Stokes (c), Pope, Buttler (wk), Bess, Wood, Broad, Anderson
What about the tourists?
The West Indies have yet to narrow their squad down beyond an initial fifteen, but there are arguably fewer question marks than was the case with England last week. The tourists have, once again, plenty of riches in the pace-bowling department; Kemar Roach, Shannon Gabriel, Alzarri Joseph, and Jason Holder have all caused England problems before. Two other players, however, are also in the mix. Chemar Holder is a sharp 22-year-old quick with a golden opportunity for a breakthrough series, while left-armer Raymon Reifer’s performance in the tourists’ warm-up match also turned a few heads. The Barbados man ripped through Jason Holder’s XI with five wickets in eleven balls, claiming the skipper’s wicket in the process.
Elsewhere, Shai Hope and Kraigg Brathwaite have the most experience with the bat, and you feel that both will need to perform consistently if the Windies are to retain the Wisden Trophy. Keep an eye on all-rounder Rahkeem Cornwall, too. Officially the heaviest man ever to play Test cricket, he hits a very hard ball and is an extremely useful off-spinner. England haven’t faced him in the red-ball game before, but he’s an extremely canny operator.
How to follow
Cricket fans in England can follow the Test series in a number of ways. Sky Sports have the live TV coverage, while highlights are returning to the BBC for the first time in over twenty years. BBC’s TMS team will provide ball-by-ball coverage on the radio, and our very own Barmy Army social media channels will be keeping you up to date with all the key moments.
To celebrate the return of Test cricket we have partnered up with Budgy Smuggler to reward our #BarmyOfTheDay throughout the West Indies series.
Send in your videos throughout the series of your home set-up, your morning rendition of Jersusalem or your wicket/runs/milestone celebrations and we will be giving away a custom pair of Barmy Army Smugglers every day to the best entrants!
So whilst you sit back and enjoy cheering Stokesy and the lads on from home make sure you record your celebrations and send them in to us on Twitter using the hashtag #BarmyOfTheDay.
Here’s hoping for a dry start, a high-quality game, and an England win.