Cricket is back! Yes, there may be less crowds and slightly more headbands, but nevertheless, not even a global pandemic can stop the gentleman’s game being played during the English summer. The first series to be played during this pandemic is between England and the West Indies as they fight once again for the Wisden Trophy. This is a matchup which has produced such memorable moments as the infamous “Blackwash” Series and Brian Lara’s world record Test innings of 400*, making it the perfect restart.
This series is made even more exciting when the recent histories of both teams are taken into account. The England team appear to be in a period of renovation and rejuvenation under new head coach Chris Silverwood, who was appointed after last year’s disappointing Ashes series. These first two tests have already seen varying combinations of players as he gives youth the nod over experience and looks to build for the future.
Meanwhile, for the West Indies, the 2019 series in the Caribbean resulted in them regaining the trophy for the first time in a decade, meaning these three tests are the perfect opportunity for them to make a statement and herald in their much-awaited return to the test arena.
Over the last few years, the England Cricket Board (ECB) made it well-known that their concentration would be firmly placed on the shorter, “white ball” forms of the game ahead of the United Kingdom hosting the Cricket World Cup in 2019. This was proved to be a successful initiative as England are now arguably the world’s dominant force in short form cricket; they are the current holders of the Cricket World Cup, as well as being ranked No.1 in ODI, and No. 2 in T20.
So, surely now is the time to shift concentration back to the “purer” form of the game? The last time England were at the top of the test rankings was in 2012 and even then, they only occupied this No.1 spot for a cumulative total of 12 months – a rather lacklustre effort when compared to Australia’s 85 months and India’s 65 months. The 2021 Ashes tour to Australia is surely at the forefront of Chris Silverwood’s mind as he hopes to avoid another whitewash down under (Australia won 4-0 in 2017) and actually challenge the current world No. 1’s over the 5-match series. With that series 18 months away, now is the perfect opportunity for England to try different combinations of players and settle on a more inspiring team than the one from last summer.
Silverwood’s first two tests in charge against South Africa and New Zealand respectively, have already displayed his intentions and how he aims to coach this team. His selection process so far has been a breath of fresh air; he has dropped players such as Jason Roy and Johnny Bairstow whose playing styles are more suitable for the one-day game and has replaced them with younger, hungrier players, such as Dominic Sibley, Zak Crawley and Ollie Pope, who will direct all their attention to the longer format. All of these players have been exceptional in the County Championship during the last three years and, despite all being under 25 years old and lacking the experience some other players may have, Silverwood clearly trusts in the impact they will have. These decisions are already starting to have positive results, Sibley and opening partner Rory Burns are England’s best opening partnership since Sir Andrew Strauss and Sir Alistair Cook, and Crawley put on a much-needed 98-run partnership with Ben Stokes in the first test.
Silverwood is clearly a fan of football manager Sir Matt Busby, whose famous quote “If they are good enough, they are old enough” is quite clearly applicable to this new England test team.
England’s bowling selections have also been a talking point of this series as for the first time in English test history, the team has fielded a completely different set of front-line seamers in consecutive tests as Anderson, Wood, and Archer gave way to Broad, Woakes, and Curran for the second test. Not only does this show the great depth of English seamers but also displays how Silverwood is preparing for the loss of James Anderson, a man as synonymous to English fast bowling as Mark Noble is to West Ham or Jägermeister is to Red Bull. At the tender age of 37, (38 at the end of July) Anderson has been in and around the England team since 2004 and has amassed 587 wickets – the highest achieved by any pace bowler. He will obviously be a huge loss for English cricket. However, his possible replacements are all knocking hard on the door.
Chris Woakes averages 22.86 with the ball on home soil which is better than both Broad and Anderson, and it has only taken him 34 tests to reach 100 wickets and 1,000 runs – in comparison it took Freddie Flintoff and Ben Stokes both 43… Since changing his bowling action, Mark Wood averages just 18.30 and has an average speed of 88mph, faster than any other English bowler. Jofra Archer took 20 wickets in the 2019 World Cup, the 3rd most in the tournament, and was the second-leading English wicket taker in the 2019 Ashes, just 1 behind Stuart Broad. When you then add in Sam Curran and Ollie Robinson, who have averages of 26.70 and 21.26 in the County Championship Division One to this list, it goes to show how truly devastating England’s future pace attack could be; one which will surely give Silverwood some selection headaches come the 2021 Tour down-under.
England also possess two very capable spinners in current Ashes hero Jack Leach and the young Dom Bess, who stepped up and performed when needed on the final day. England have struggled to find a top-class spinner since Graham Swann retired, so to have two spinners with respectable averages so far in their short international careers is a luxury England hasn’t had in a long time.
Am I getting overexcited? Maybe. Does this bother me? Not at all. Graham Thorpe, ex-England test player and current batting coach, described the current squad as “a good group of players who are keen on developing”, and that is exactly what Silverwood wants. With all his chopping and changing in the first two tests, Silverwood is assessing the depth of a relatively young and inexperienced team, and starting to build a team for the future, one that will go to Australia in 18 months’ time and put up a fight.
On the other side of the bio secure bubble is the West Indies team. To understand why this West Indies team catches the eye, you have to remember the shortcomings of this team in test cricket over the last 25 years, where their performance has been nothing other than disappointing. A mix of disinterest towards the ‘red ball’ form of the game and the attraction of the highly lucrative T20 leagues has resulted in the West Indies experiencing one of the sharpest declines in the history of sport after their dominance in the 1980s.
It’s not that the West Indies didn’t have talented players during this period, the likes of Brian Lara and Shivnarine Chanderpaul were playing at their peaks, but it was due to the failures of the West Indian Cricket Board (WICB) to adapt to the changing environment of world cricket. The WICB offering no permeant contracts led to a disinterest towards both the WICB themselves and test cricket in general, resulting in players being drawn towards the money of the “goldrush” leagues such as the IPL and directing their attentions towards the short forms of the game instead. This indifference towards the “true” form of the game reached such disastrous levels that in 2017 they failed to even qualify for the Champions Trophy, completing their fall from grace.
Is this all beginning to change though? Could we witness the resurgence of this once great cricketing nation? I for one am hopeful. I’m not suggesting that this team is the next world number one or that they will be as dominant as the West Indies teams of the ‘80s – their recent test record simply doesn’t suggest that. What I am suggesting though, and the main reason I’m excited about this team, is that there is some real quality in these players and, most importantly, they are a West Indian team that actually wants to play test cricket.
Look no further than Jason Holder, their captain, who has gained the respect of the West Indian fans and the cricketing world by leading by example. Not only did he hit a mammoth 202* against England last year but his stats since 2018 are unparalleled, he has taken 55 test wickets at an average of 14.05 and averages 42.50 runs with the bat, it’s no wonder that he is the current No.1 ranked all-rounder. Supporting this “Captain Fantastic” is a ferocious bowling attack that successfully combines pace, swing, and bounce, so successfully in fact it was able to skittle England for 200 in the first innings of the tour with Holder taking career best figures of 6-42. Shannon Gabriel, Kemar Roach, and Alzarri Joseph bowled well as a unit and proved many of the pundits right, this is a West Indian pace attack that should be respected.
Unlike their bowling teammates, the West Indies batting line-up was heavily criticised in the build-up to this series, mainly due to the relevant inexperience of players in key positions (Joe Root has the same number of test match centuries, 17, as the West Indian Top 6) as well as the poor performances of some of these players on their last tour of England in 2017. Despite this lack of international experience, many of these players are starting to show signs of potential. Jermaine Blackwood, a batsman who is usually described as a maverick and rash, played an uncharacteristically calm innings of 95 off 154 which was the engine room for the West Indies successful run chase. Another 5 half-centuries scored by Brathwaite, Brooks, and Chase are clear indicators that these players do have the skill, but I doubt the criticisms will stop until one of them reaches three figures.
After a few years of waiting, the West Indies have finally produced a team that is slightly reminiscent of the classic sides of years gone by. Former West Indies all-rounder and commentator Carlos Brathwaite summed it up perfectly, “It was a polished, professional Test unit rather than a bunch of guys put together to play Test cricket for West Indies.” This is a compact and close-knit unit that is playing well and enjoying their test cricket, and they want you to know it.
Maybe the lack of cricket over the last 6 months has made me rather overexcited about its return and these are just incoherent ramblings. It is impossible to deny however that the series so far has been an enthralling return for the sport; Sibley’s 2nd international century (the 4th slowest for England ever), Gabriel’s 9-wicket-match, or anything Stokes did in the 2nd Test. With the series poised at 1-1, it’s all to play for come the start of the 3rd Test on Friday, so I think my excitement may be justifiable.