Deputy Sport Editor Sam Mitchinson discusses the return of test cricket as England prepare to face the West Indies.
Cricket, in its highest and most glorious format – test cricket – will soon be returning. For many, including myself, cricket is far more than just a recreational past-time. It is the very essence of summer. Summer as a child would not have been the same without the hours spent running fine-leg to fine-leg in 30-degree heat. While certainly batting at eight and not bowling damaged my ego somewhat, looking back on those times define a blissful era. Even now, summer is not complete without the assured crack of leather on willow penetrating the air, heralding an era of whites, tea, and unnecessary sledging.
It is this beacon of summer hope that is finally returning to us on the 8 July in Southampton, five days of gripping combat between bat and ball, testing the mental and physical edge of our nation’s most talented sportsmen. The team that will be pitched against temporary captain Ben Stokes and his men are perhaps the most historically celebrated and beloved team in international cricket: the West Indies.
The West Indies of the 80s and 90s were the most feared and respected team in world cricket and were subsequently immortalised in the legendary sports documentary, Fire in Babylon. They dominated with both bat and ball. Dazzling batting talents such as Viv Richards and Gordon Greenidge would amass titanic totals, while deadly pace bowlers such as Michael Holding and Malcolm Marshall would harass, intimidate and demolish the hapless batsmen with their bouncing barrage. They did not lose a single series from 1980 to 1995 and reinforced the idea of the West Indies as cricket’s favourite team.
Unfortunately, the current side is a far cry from that great team of old. None of their current players average over 40 with the bat and the competition is unlikely to be anywhere near as strong as it was in those days of supremacy. Nonetheless, this England side would be foolish to underestimate their opponent, as they did when they visited the Windies in 2018/19, losing the series 2-1.
For many England players, this series marks a make or break moment in their career. Both Joe Denly and Zak Crawley have failed thus far to make a significant lasting impact on the team, and any game time either receive will undoubtedly be an audition for the chance to cement themselves at number three. For Ben Stokes, this first test gives him the chance to showcase his captaincy credentials, with regular captain Joe Root missing the first test due to the birth of his second child.
Root’s captaincy has come under extreme scrutiny over recent months, and success later in this series would be a welcome reinforcement of his position, particularly if he manages to string some good scores together with the bat. Buttler is clearly the selector’s darling, who somehow remain convinced that he is on the cusp of becoming a top-quality test match player. While he is certainly capable of some explosive, Instagram worthy moments, one is often left longing for the strong and stable glove-work of Foakes, who, despite a lack of runs in the county championship, would surely be a step up over Buttler, a mediocre keeper at best who has averaged just 21 with the bat over the last year.
Naturally, the match will be held behind closed doors with the barmy army forced to watch from home rather than the stands. This has caused some to fear that the lack of home atmosphere and a raucous crowd will be a disadvantage for an England side that can usually guarantee a significant following. However, I somewhat doubt that these professional players, all of whom play or have played a significant number of county games with a total crowd that barely edges over 100, will suddenly be left aghast and rudderless by a lack of fans.
This series is not occurring in a vacuum, and while of course we’re all delighted that cricket will soon be returning, the sport cannot ignore the protests ongoing throughout the world. Many cricketers, including England superstar Jofra Archer and former opener Michael Carberry, have called on institutions such as the ECB to improve black representation in prominent positions, while the West Indies will be wearing the Black Lives Matter logo on their shirts, with captain Jason Holder highlighting the importance of showing solidarity and raising awareness.
While test cricket will be back soon, we must wait until 1 August for the domestic county championship to begin again. Unfortunately, the ECB’s tour-de-force competition, “The Hundred”, which was due to begin this summer, has been postponed. A radical attempt to get “the youth” interested in cricket, The Hundred simplified a game that executives determined was too complicated to understand, making innings 100 balls long. With catchy team names such as London Spirit, Oval Invincibles, and Manchester Originals, it’s a shame that we will now have to wait another year to see whether any of this actually pays off.
Nevertheless, while cricket fans throughout the world will be able to watch the very best battle it out on TV, the recreational game remains somewhat in limbo. In the House of Commons, Prime Minister Boris Johnson described the cricket ball as a “natural vector of disease,” and it seems that it will be some time before recreational cricket can begin to be played again. This places many local cricket clubs in a very precarious financial position, with lost membership fees and, perhaps more importantly, the loss of potential new cricket stars. With most other sports now up and running again, cricket risks losing the interest of the children of today and the future superstars of tomorrow.
Thus, at least for the time being, passionate cricket fans must sit and wait for official guidelines to change before again picking up bat and ball. A summer without cricket will hardly feel like summer at all and one must hope that clubs are able to withstand the potential financial turmoil and continue to be the lifeblood of the season for countless years to come.