By Michael Stafford-Jones
- England face unpredictable hosts as they seek their first series win in the Caribbean since 2003
- James Anderson and his fellow bowlers will have to deal with unhelpful pitch conditions
- The top order batsmen are under pressure and the middle order will be keen to maintain their form
BARBADOS, WEST INDIES – England head to the Caribbean in search of a third consecutive series win after impressive victories over India and Sri Lanka.
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Joe Root (Yorkshire, captain), Moeen Ali (Worcestershire), James Anderson (Lancashire), Jonny Bairstow (Yorkshire), Stuart Broad (Nottinghamshire), Rory Burns (Surrey), Jos Buttler (Lancashire), Sam Curran (Surrey), Joe Denly (Kent), Ben Foakes (Surrey), Keaton Jennings (Lancashire), Jack Leach (Somerset), Adil Rashid (Yorkshire), Ben Stokes (Durham), Olly Stone (Warwickshire), Chris Woakes (Warwickshire).
23-27 January – 1st Test, Barbados
31 Jan-4 Feb – 2nd Test, Antigua
9-13 February – 3rd Test, St Lucia
England must cope with unpredictable hosts
It is always difficult to know what to expect when England face the West Indies these days. There is seemingly never-ending turmoil between the country’s governing body and its best players, and this means that most of them rarely play Test cricket.
What the country is left with is a cast of other players who struggle to live up to their nation’s past glories in the game. That is not to say they are without talent: Captain Jason Holder is a very good all-rounder, Shai Hope and Kraigg Brathwaite are high-quality batsmen and pacemen Shannon Gabriel and Kemar Roach can be dangerous on their day.
West Indies are also boosted by the recall of excellent left-hander Darren Bravo, who was dropped in November 2016 after he called West Indies Cricket Board President Dave Cameron “a big idiot” on Twitter.
However, the spinner they have selected for the First Test, Jomel Warrican, remains relatively untested at international level as he has only played seven matches so far.
When you add all of these elements together, it is impossible to predict how the West Indies will perform in the upcoming Test series. Therefore, all England can do is focus on producing their best in Caribbean conditions.
Bowlers will have to battle unhelpful conditions
In the last two Test series, it has been like watching a fresh new England in action. Their pacemen tore into the Indian batting line-up on home soil, and then their spinners set about dismantling Sri Lanka on their own patch.
However, all the bowlers could find life more difficult in the Caribbean. In recent years, the pitches have been slow and fairly lifeless, which makes it hard to take wickets.
There will be spin, but not as much as there was in Sri Lanka, so someone with a bit of mystery like Adil Rashid could be important. But there will not much in the way of swing and there is unlikely to be as much bounce as England’s pacemen would like either.
This means that James Anderson, Stuart Broad and whoever else is selected will have to work hard for their wickets.
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Middle order must build on momentum established against India and Sri Lanka
England’s batsmen did not excel against India, but there were a few notable performances from the middle and lower order that set them up for the rest of the year.
Two of these were from Sam Curran, who wrestled the First Test back from the Indians when victory was seemingly within their grasp and then scored crucial runs in both innings of the Fourth Test. One came in defeat, as Jos Buttler scored his maiden Test hundred during a partnership of 169 with Ben Stokes to ensure England did not go down without a fight.
And the last significant performance of the summer (if you discount Alastair Cook’s farewell hundred) was Joe Root’s 125 at The Oval. This represented a timely return to form for the skipper, and it is hard to imagine him scoring that brilliant 124 in Sri Lanka if he had not experienced this vital confidence boost.
Jos Buttler also thrived in Sri Lanka, and if he and Root can continue to produce the goods against the West Indies then it will go a long way towards helping England win a series in the Caribbean for the first time since 2003.
England will also have high hopes for Stokes in the upcoming series after his solid but unspectacular performances against India and Sri Lanka.
Top three must attempt to nail down their places
While England’s middle order is well-established, their top three still have plenty to prove. Keaton Jennings, Rory Burns and Jonny Bairstow all need to perform well in the Caribbean for different reasons.
It is still very early in Burns’ international career, but if he can score his first century against the West Indies, the conversation will move on from whether he should be in the team to who should partner him at the top of the order for The Ashes.
Jennings, on the other hand, is lucky he is still in the team and must start scoring runs on a consistent basis or the calls for his removal will grow louder and louder.
His form in Sri Lanka was particularly bizarre, as he made 46 and 146 not out in the First Test and then scored just 41 runs in the next four innings. However, although it is not ideal for a team when a batsman only contributes in one Test out of three, if he does the same against the West Indies he will probably keep his place for the next series.
Bairstow is in a unique situation. On one hand, he has a great chance to make the number three spot his own after he started his time there with an impressive hundred against Sri Lanka. But on the other hand, if he struggles and Ben Foakes performs well again in the Yorkshireman’s previous role of wicketkeeper-batsman, Bairstow’s future place in the team will be less certain.
England’s First Test against the West Indies begins in Bridgetown at 2pm GMT on the 23rd January.
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