• Ben Stokes will lead England out in Tests for the first time as Joe Root awaits the birth of his second child
  • Stokes’ opposite number and fellow all-rounder Jason Holder will be key to a first West Indies win in England since 1988
  • We’ve had an unseasonably dry spring – will spin actually play a more prominent part than expected with such frail batting line-ups and stacked pace attacks?
SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – There is always a story to be told when the West Indies tour England, but without a series win here in over 30 years, will the first Tests back since coronavirus be a landmark time for Jason Holder’s side?

 

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We’ve made it, everyone. After a lockdown spent indoors with virtually endless sunshine, Test cricket is finally back in the second week of July. And, touch wood, the forecast for Southampton is looking good once we get past day two! Never mind. We can do nothing about the weather, nor can we do anything about the global pandemic that has resigned the carnival atmosphere West Indies fans bring to this island to take place in the lounge rather than at the Ageas Bowl or Old Trafford.

Still, there are many fascinating storylines and selection decisions that can sway this three-match series either way. England vs West Indies in English conditions has always meant a home win in recent decades, even when the Windies had the great Brian Lara in their midst. But, considering it’s the first sign of international cricket for five months, it’s Britwatch’s job to tell you why this is going to be the most exciting and closely-fought match-up for years and why you should reserve the best seat in the house (well, your house) for the next three weeks as the sides play back-to-back from tomorrow (July 8) right through until July 28. 15 days out of 20 could be pure cricket, weather and performance permitting. Who can say fairer than that?

 

Stokes vs Holder

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The key battle running throughout the series will be between the all-rounders and skippers – Ben Stokes and Jason Holder. Both players sit atop the ICC all-rounder rankings (although shockingly for most England fans, Holder is above Stokes) and will both lead from the front with their level of performances. 

Holder has been captain for five years now, and his calm, composed demeanour adds a professionalism and steely determination to a West Indies side that was at civil war with itself when the captain’s baton was passed to the 6ft 7″ Barbadian.

Conversely, this will be the first time Stokes has ever led England out in any format, so expect a scrupulous eye on his captaincy from the TV pundits. Field placings and how he rotates his bowling attack will be the main topics of debate, but don’t expect the extra responsibility to weigh heavy on Stokes as it did for England’s previous world-class all-rounders, Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff.

Unlike those two, Stokes is relied upon less with the ball (he only bowled 78 overs in 4 Tests in South Africa: Joe Root bowled 60) allowing him to focus on the multitude of responsibilities a captain faces when out in the field.

Stokes has already shown, in an utterly remarkable 2019, how he enjoys bearing the weight of the nation on his shoulders. What he doesn’t have, unlike his opposite number, is a Test double hundred against this opposition. If cricket fans cast their mind back a couple of years (I know that seems like March 2020, but I’m talking about January 2019) at the Kensington Oval, captain Holder scored a sensational 202* vs England in a 295-run partnership with wicket-keeper Shane Dowrich, as the West Indies won by a mammoth 381 runs – their greatest victory at home in terms of runs. England’s pace bowling attack that match (James Anderson, Sam Curran and Stokes) are all likely to start again. England might not have lost to the West Indies at home in Stokes’ lifetime – let alone Curran’s – but they must be wary of the no.1 all-rounder’s ability, not just with bat and ball, but to lead by example. Stokes is certainly not alone in that regard.

 

A case for the spinners?

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When you look at both sides’ bowling lineups, it’s almost impossible to look beyond the pace attacks. The prospect of Jofra Archer and Mark Wood lining up together in a Test match and bowling 90mph+ rockets from either end is enough to make English mouths water, never mind the 1069-combined Test wickets of Anderson and Stuart Broad. On the West Indies team sheet, 31-year-old Kemar Roach took 18 wickets vs England at an average of 13.88 in the aforementioned 2019 series in the Caribbean and was named man of the series, and will be complemented by captain Holder, who averages 26.37 with the ball in Tests (better than Anderson and Broad) and the young Alzarri Joseph, who impressed the cricketing faithful with his outstanding attitude in 2019 when he continued to play during the 2nd Test despite hearing about his mother’s death before day two: he took four wickets as the West Indies won the Wisden Trophy.

However, as every weather-obsessed Brit knows, we’ve had an unseasonably dry spring – it will be fascinating to see what pitches the groundsmen at Southampton and Manchester can produce, especially in Lancashire, where the sides will play two back-to-back Tests at the same venue on 16 & 24 July.

If the pitches are unusually dry for English conditions, then the selection of Dom Bess may come under increasing scrutiny. Recalled to the Test team in January after an 18-month absence, Bess struggled to impose himself in Cape Town but bounced back in style with his first ever five-wicket haul in Tests, dismissing five of the top six in Port Elizabeth.

That performance alone is probably why England have stuck with the 22-year-old, especially considering the performances of Moeen Ali and Jack Leach in England’s intra-squad friendly last week. However, Bess hasn’t taken a wicket outside of Leeds in Test cricket, whereas West Indies off-spinner Roston Chase tore through England’s batting line-up the last time these two sides faced off, taking 8-60 in Bridgetown.

Admittedly, the English pitches will not be as conducive to spin as in the Caribbean, but the scars will still be there for the likes of Rory Burns, Stokes and Jos Buttler, all dismissed by Chase in that typically English batting collapse. It might just take one ball to spit and bounce on days four or five at the Ageas Bowl for English batsmen to be quaking in their boots.

 

But will we get that far?

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Not according to Lara, we won’t. He has made the claim if West Indies are to retain the Wisden Trophy and win in England for the first time since 1988, they have to shorten the Test matches as much as possible, and win inside four days. Basically, he has very little faith in his countrymen to actually bat like a five-day Test match requires, despite still having Shai Hope in their ranks, who scored an incredible fourth-innings century at Headingley the last time the Windies toured England.

As reported by the BBC, Lara said: “They have to hit the road running and stamp their authority on England. I don’t think they can last five days, so they have to take these games in four days. They have to establish a lead and keep it. It would mean a lot to all West Indians if they could win. If they play good cricket on the first day of the Test series, show they have the mettle to perform against England, that’s the key.”

Lara’s lack of confidence in his side’s batting is unsurprising when you look at the West Indies’ form since they toured England in 2017. In 19 Tests, their batsmen average just 23.59 – for context, England’s Mark Wood, batting at nos. 9 & 10, averages just shy of 20.

Lara is also right to target the first day as the crucial one for the touring side. If you look back to 2019, and West Indies’ first bowling day vs England after scoring a slightly below-par 289, Roach took five wickets as England were skittled for just 77. This ranks in the top 20 lowest Test scores ever for England, ranging back to Tests in the 19th century. All 10 wickets that day were taken by players who will line up for the West Indies at Southampton, so expect the Windies to come out firing with the ball in even more favourable conditions for the quicks than in Barbados.

The focus, therefore, may come on England’s top order in the absence of captain Joe Root. The selectors have decided to stick with Joe Denly, who has averaged exactly 30 in the top three for England since his debut in the West Indies.

He will move to Root’s position of four as opener Rory Burns has recovered from his ankle ligament injury sustained playing football in January. Burns will partner Dom Sibley, with Zak Crawley dropping to no.3. Crawley perhaps then has the most to prove with his current batting average of 27.33 deemed unsatisfactory for countless batsmen before him since the retirement of Sir Andrew Strauss. Keep an eye on the 22-year-old’s progress during this series, as his fortunes could reflect his team’s chances of continued success in the Test arena in the immediate future.

The First Test takes place at Southampton on 8 July.

 

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