117 days. That’s how long it has been since international cricket was last played. It was Australia and New Zealand who played the last international fixture at the Sydney Cricket Ground on March 13.
The sport had not seen such a long break since the 2 World Wars in the early 20th century. Even during the World Wars, first-class cricket was played, especially in India, but the pandemic has enforced a total shutdown.
However, as they say, there is light at the end of the tunnel.
The sound of the leather brushing the middle of the willow is all set to be heard again as England take on West Indies in what promises to be a historic 3-Test series from July 8. The two teams will be in action in front of empty stands at the Ageas Bowl in Southampton from Wednesday as sport-deprived cricket fans are expected to tune in from across the globe.
Why is the West Indies tour of England significant?
At a time when the sport is grappling with financial issues, England and West Indies have taken a major step towards return to business. The sporting world was filled with uncertainty when the pandemic forced lockdowns and closure of borders across the globe. Lives and livelihoods were lost and it did not seem cricket would return as early as July.
However, England and West Indies boards have ticked the right boxes so far in making arrangements for the Test series while keeping the safety and health of the players and other stakeholders as a priority.
West Indies arrived in the UK as early as June and were in quarantine during which they were subjected to multiple Covid-19 tests. They lived and trained in bio-secure bubbles in Manchester. On the other hand, England trained under similar conditions in Manchester. Thankfully, none of the players from the two squads have tested positive for Covid-19 so far.
West Indies players arrived in England as early as June (Reuters Photo)
A successful series between England and West Indies will certainly boost the hopes of other cricket-playing nations to consider resuming activities. Already, Pakistan have arrived in the UK and are scheduled to play 3 Tests and 3 T20Is in August-September. England will also play 3 ODIs against Ireland before the Pakistan series.
Life in the bubble begins pic.twitter.com/xwisWunmu4
— England Cricket (@englandcricket) June 25, 2020
The winner will be cricket if the England-West Indies series goes ahead as planned without major disruptions.
The new normal: Empty stands, saliva ban, fake crowd noise
Cricket is back but it’s not going to be the same. Ben Stokes is not going to have the Barmy Army backing him to stitch a magical 10th-wicket stand.
Taking into account the Covid-19 situation, crowds have been banned from the 3-Test series between England and West Indies.
Nonetheless, England and West Indies have agreed on the usage of fake crowd noise and music to enhance the atmosphere in the absence of fans in stadiums.
Moreover, physical distancing will be the norm on and off the field during the Test series. The teams will live and train in hotels attached to the stadiums during the series to avoid a lot of travel in the wake of the pandemic.
— Windies Cricket (@windiescricket) July 7, 2020
We got a sense of what would come when England played the 3-day intra-squad practice match. Saliva was not used to shine the Dukes ball as the International Cricket Council (ICC) has banned its usage.
Players are going to be using hand sanitiser kiosks stationed along the boundary lines more often than not. High-fives and hugs are not going to be part of on-field celebrations in the near future.
There will be an additional DRS review available for each team as non-neutral umpires are set to return to international cricket. Covid-19 substitutes will also be allowed in case a player catches the virus during the Test match.
How have England and West Indies prepared for the Test series?
West Indies played 2 intra-squad warm-up matches in Manchester before arriving in Southampton for the first Test. On the other hand, England announced their 13-member squad after their 3-day intra-squad match earlier this month in Southampton.
How are the squads looking like for the first Test?
It will be a battle between 2 top-rated all-rounders as Ben Stokes will lead England in the absence of Joe Root against Jason Holder’s West Indies. Root has taken paternity leave and is expected to join the squad ahead of the 2nd Test.
While the two sides are filled with all-rounders, the battle between fast bowlers is going to be mouth-watering. While James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Jofra Archer, Chris Woakes, Mark Wood and Stokes will be battling for spots, West Indies will be going in with Kemar Roach, Shannon Gabriel, captain Holder and youngster Alzarri Joseph.
Keep in mind, the quartet caused England a lot of trouble as they led West Indies to a 2-1 win at home last year.
Full squads for England vs West Indies, 1st Test
England: Ben Stokes (C), James Anderson, Jofra Archer, Dom Bess, Stuart Broad, Rory Burns, Jos Buttler (wk), Zak Crawley, Joe Denly, Ollie Pope, Dom Sibley, Chris Woakes, Mark Wood.
West Indies: Jason Holder (C), Jermaine Blackwood, Nkrumah Bonner, Kraigg Brathwaite, Shamarh Brooks, John Campbell, Roston Chase, Rahkeem Cornwall, Shane Dowrich (wk), Shannon Gabriel, Chemar Holder, Shai Hope, Alzarri Joseph, Raymon Reifer, Kemar Roach.
What does the history between the two sides say?
West Indies are the defending champions of the Wisden Trophy but they have to punch above their weight if they are to retain the trophy in England. No West Indies team since Sir Vivian Richards’ men in 1988 have managed to win a series in the Old Blighty.
As Brian Lara calls, England are starting as overwhelming favourites.