Around this time last year, the cricket had jam-packed stadiums in England. First, it was the cricket World Cup and then the Ashes. At the centre stage of it was one player: Ben Stokes. First with a gritty knock when it mattered the most in the World Cup final. A month later, with one of the most iconic comebacks in Ashes history. With the bat, ball and in the field, there was one player who matched the impact other ten on his own.
A year later, he will be leading the team as well. With the pace at which Stokes is rising, England’s head coach, Chris Silverwood, should be concerned about his job. Joe Root will miss the first Test as he awaits the birth of his second child. His absence results in two of the best all-rounders around to lead their respective sides.
One has to go back the 1986-87 season for something similar in the cricketing folklore. Then it was Kapil Dev, leading his men against the touring side under Imran Khan.
In the world of left-arm spinners as all-rounders, Stokes and Jason Holder carry the old legacy forward. With the ball, Holder has an exceptional record since 2018. His 53 wickets were at 14.2 runs per wicket, best among any bowler with more than 10 wickets in this period. His average only improved to 11.5 in two Tests away from home. This too on dry wickets in the subcontinent against India and Afghanistan.
It is tough to point out what helped him to improve his bowling average from 38.5 before 2018. But, while 50% of his deliveries were in-swingers till 2017, since 2018, the percentage of in and out swing his around 35% each. Though his in-swingers continue to be more lethal, the out-swingers plant the seed of doubt in the batsmen’s mind.
West Indies currently hold the Wisden Trophy. They regained it after beating England 2-1 at home in early 2019. Beating them at their own game, the Caribbean pacers used the duke ball to demolish England in the first two Tests. The destroyer-in-chief was Kemar Roach with 18 wickets conceding just 13.9 runs per wicket.
Add to this the awkward-to-face Shannon Gabriel and young Alzarri Joseph, the pace attack for the West Indies is competent for the task in hand.
Struggle for the West Indies will be with the bat. Especially at the top of the order. Kraigg Brathwaite averaged 16.8 in 12 innings since 2019. Jon Campbell has one score of 50+ in as many innings. With an average of 27.4, Shai Hope is yet to dominate the Test arena. His twin hundreds at Headingley in 2017 are a confidence booster but, these remain his only Test tons. Too few for a number three after 58 innings and for someone who has a fifty-plus average in ODIs.
Darren Bravo and Shimron Hetmyer opted out of the tour to avoid Covid-19 related risks. This opens the door for Shamarh Brooks and Jermaine Blackwood. One on the basis of merit and the other due to lack of options. In five Test innings, Brooks has a hundred and a fifty in his career. Destined for big things, as per Rahul Dravid, Brooks would hope to use his prior experience of English conditions during his tour with the A-team. Blackwood has only one Test to his name since 2018. Top-scoring with 768 runs in the domestic four-day competition in the West Indies, Blackwood is back to face the side he has his only Test century against.
The chances for the West Indies lie in the competence of these fragile five to shield the more responsible men to follow.
England announced a 13-man squad ahead of the first Test. The ones likely to miss out of the final XI are two of the five pacers. England have the option of choosing all three of James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Jofra Archer for the first time since Archer’s debut. Yet with Mark Wood’s recent form and his performance the last time these two sides met, he is likely to pip Broad.
When it comes to their batting, Rory Burns is back after his ankle injury. The injury ahead of the second Test against South Africa in Jan 2020 that led to an end to football warm-ups. Lucky for him, he did not miss the amount of cricket that we once thought he will.
This will be the first time Dom Sibley will get a chance to bat in home conditions. With diminishing returns, Joe Denly’s Test career hangs by a thread. At 34, he might not get time to revive it again. As Zak Crawley knocks on the door and Joe Root set to return in the next Test, this might be the last of Denly in whites.
Apart from the usual suspects like Stokes and Jos Buttler, the most exciting prospect is Ollie Pope. Amid all the odd technicians flourishing in the current England set-up, he is a treat to the eye. After two hundreds in England’s last Test assignment, number six seems too low for the attractive Surrey batsman.
With only one Test at Ageas Bowl since 2016, it is tough to predict the conditions. But, going by what culminated in England’s Test against India in 2018, spin is likely to be impactful in the last two days. With Roston Chase and Dom Bess, both sides have a spin option. However, West Indies can spring a spin a surprise to include an extra option of Rahkeem Cornwall.
There are already calls to rename The Wisden trophy to something more relevant. Something that relates to the history behind the competition between the two sides. Roach went on to call it their biggest series, their Ashes. With two strong bowling units, the performance of the West Indian batsmen will decide the quality of the competition.
As for England’s stand-in captain, as Nasser Hussain puts it, his platter his already full. But, a long break would only have increased his appetite.
ENG: Dom Sibley, Rory Burns, Zak Crawley, Joe Denly, Ben Stokes, Ollie Pope, Jos Buttler, Dom Bess, Jofra Archer, Mark Wood and James Anderson.
WI: Kraigg Brathwaite, John Campbell, Shai Hope, Jermaine Blackwood, Shamarh Brooks, Roston Chase, Shane Dowrich, Jason Holder, Alzarri Joseph, Kemar Roach and Shannon Gabriel.
The match starts at 3:30 PM IST on July 8th