Four months after more than 86,000 fans thronged the Melbourne Cricket Ground to make us all feel cozy inside about cricket in 2020, nearly four months after the last international fixture was played, the sport is all set for a comeback in front of empty stands in England.

On Wednesday, international cricket resumes after months of coronavirus-enforced lockdown with the first Test between England and the West Indies at Southampton starting on Wednesday.

The attention in the immediate future will be on the surreal atmosphere will be played. Like being in a sci-fi movie is how the bio-secure nature of this series is being described as. A number of anti-virus measures mean this match will look like few others in 143 years of Test-match history.

For a start, both sides will be staying at on-site hotels at Southampton’s Ageas Bowl and Old Trafford in Manchester – the venue for the second and third Tests – in a series originally scheduled for elsewhere in England in June. England have already settled in at the Ageas Bowl, where they played a three-day intra-squad match this week as the West Indies continued their preparations at Old Trafford.

“There is hand sanitiser at every turn, and on the floor there are arrows, lines and footprints to show the way to go,” England pacer Mark Wood told the BBC. He added meal times were “like being back at school”, with players at individual desks “looking at the back of the person in front”.

But perhaps the most visible change will be the lack of any spectators. While that in itself is not new for Test cricket, the English summer usually attracts a good number of fans to the stadium but there would be very things usual about this match.

Can West Indies batsmen step up?

Moving on to the cricket part of proceedings, batting could well determine which side emerges on top in a battle that has produced some fascinating contests in the recent past.

Both sides have proven pace attacks, with West Indies captain Jason Holder among a bowling unit set to include the likes of Shannon Gabriel, Kemar Roach and Alzarri Joseph as the tourists look to retain the Wisden Trophy they won in the Caribbean last year.

England too have plenty of pace bowling options, with veteran new-ball duo James Anderson and Stuart Broad among a group of fast bowlers that also includes the Barbados-born Jofra Archer along with Wood.

They, like the West Indies, will be captained by a seam-bowling all-rounder of their own in new skipper Ben Stokes, shouldering the burden of England leadership for the first time in the absence of regular captain Joe Root, who is missing the match to attend the birth of his second child.

England have no spare batsman in their 13-man squad, with Dom Bess the lone spinner, and that meaning the make-up of their pace attack appears to be the outstanding issue.

Injuries have prevented England pairing the express Archer and Wood together since the former’s Test debut last year. But if they are both in the final XI, it could mean Broad missing a first home Test in eight years.

With matches coming thick and fast – the three-match series will be over before the end of the month – England may decide to hold Wood back for the second and third Tests at Old Trafford.

The pitch at Lancashire’s headquarters traditionally has more bounce than the one at Southampton – a consideration that is even more important given the temporary ban on bowlers using saliva in order to combat the spread of Covid-19.

Root’s absence weakens England’s batting, even if if he managed a mere four runs when the side were bowled out for 77 in the first Test at Barbados last year, with Roach taking five for 17.

Nevertheless, the pressure will be on the top order, for all England won a series in South Africa this year, with Joe Denly set to play despite averaging a modest 30 from 14 Tests.

‘Time in the middle’

West Indies’ also face questions over whether their batsmen can give their bowlers enough runs to play with.

A likely top-five of Kraigg Brathwaite, John Campbell, Shamarh Brooks, Shai Hope and Roston Chase subsided to 49 for five in their final intra-squad warm-up innings at Old Trafford.

“I would have loved to see the batsmen spend a little bit more time in the middle,” said West Indies assistant coach Roddy Estwick.

Former captain Brian Lara said West Indies will need to adopt a proactive approach. And the 51-year-old expressed concern over the visitors’ batting department.

“They [West Indies] have to be able to pounce immediately,” Lara told BBC Sport. “England are not beaten very easily at home and are overwhelming favourites. 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.”

Lara pointed out that adaptability will be the key for West Indies, who are the holders of the Wisden Trophy after winning 2-1 in the Caribbean last year. The Windies are eyeing their first series win in England since 1988.

“It’s going to be a series that’s watched all around the world and everybody is hoping to see a competitive series. 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, and that’s the key,” he added.

Battle of the all-rounders

Another neat sub-plot is that two of the world’s best all-rounders in Stokes and Holder will be captaining their respective sides.

Data check: From Garfield Sobers to Jacques Kallis, a look at the greatest all-rounders in Tests and where the contemporary cricketers stand

Holder tops the ICC’s Test all-rounder rankings, with fellow paceman Stokes in second place. They both average in the 30s with the bat, with Holder’s bowling mark of 26.37 slightly more economical than Stokes’ 32.68.

But while Holder, 28, is a seasoned skipper, Wednesday’s match will be the first time the 29-year-old Stokes has captained a cricket team since he was a teenager. England’s talisman has been thrust into the role but he seemed keen to get on with it, with advice from Root.

Pace-bowling all-rounders Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff saw their individual games decline with the cares of the England captaincy. The concern is that something similar will happen to Stokes, a key figure in England’s World Cup triumph last year when his spectacular century also saw the team to a remarkable win over Australia in an Ashes Test at Headingley.

It appeared any chance of Stokes becoming England captain disappeared when he was charged with affray following an incident outside a Bristol nightclub. But after being found not guilty at a 2018 trial, he regained a position of responsibility as Root’s vice-captain.

“After that happened it was ‘right, what am I going to do from this point forward?,” Stokes said last week. “I’m quite proud to say I’m in this situation (of being England captain) through hard work and determination.”

Holder was made captain of the West Indies’ one-day side aged just 23. A year later he was put in charge of the Test side against a backdrop of administrative chaos that included bitter rows between senior players and administrators.

Sympathy for his plight has sometimes overshadowed recognition of his cricketing skill.

Holder, however, showed his class with an unbeaten double century against England in the first Test at his Barbados home ground during a 381-run win last year that sent the West Indies on the way to a series victory.

“Hopefully Jason can do what’s necessary to get on top of Ben in this first Test,” said West Indies coach Phil Simmons.

“Jason has played enough Test cricket now to know what he’s working on and, mentally, he’s where he wants to be. I think Ben is one of them who leads from the front. That’s to be shown by all his exploits before in cricket and we will have to make sure that we get on to him very early, because he likes to do what is necessary for his team.”

What’s new?

  • Covid-19 substitutions: Teams will be allowed to replace players displaying symptoms of Covid-19 during a Test match. In line with concussion replacements, the match referee will approve the nearest like-for-like replacement.
  • Saliva ban (but sweat allowed): Players will not be permitted to use saliva to shine the ball. If a player does apply saliva to the ball, the umpires will manage the situation with some leniency during an initial period of adjustment for the players, but subsequent instances will result in the team receiving a warning.A team can be issued up to two warnings per innings but repeated use of saliva on the ball will result in a 5-run penalty to the batting side. Whenever saliva is applied to the ball, the umpires will be instructed to clean the ball before play recommences.
  • Local umpires and extra DRS: An additional unsuccessful DRS review for each team in each innings of a match, keeping in mind that there may be less experienced umpires on duty at times. This will increase the number of unsuccessful appeals per innings for each team to three for Tests.
  • No fans: How the teams are affected by playing behind closed doors also remains to be seen.But England batsman Ollie Pope said: “When that Test match starts up, crowd or no crowd, you are going to be really up for it.”
  • Black Lives Matter: This series also takes place against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter campaign, with both sides set to wear a BLM logo on their shirts.“It means a hell of a lot to all the players,” said West Indies coach Phil Simmons. “But it doesn’t take the Black Lives Matter situation to bring us together as a team.”

Read more here: Saliva ban, Covid-19 substitutions in Tests: Here are interim changes for cricket confirmed by ICC

ICC World Test Championship points

In case you had forgotten, we are also in the midst of the ICC World Test Championship.

England, currently on 146 points, would be aiming to overtake New Zealand (180) to third position in the points table while the West Indies would be hoping to garner their opening points having previously lost 2-0 to table leaders India. England drew a five-Test series 2-2 against Australia and won a four-match series 3-1 against South Africa.

A quick recap for you: Each series of the WTC is worth 120 points, distributed evenly over the number of matches in a series. The points range from 60 points for each match of a two-Test series to 24 for each match of a five-Test series. The top two teams at the end of the league will play the final to decide the champion. But there’s no clarity yet on how the championship will wind down.

Welcome back, cricket

As former West Indies pacer and commentator Ian Bishop said in a brilliant video released by the ICC ahead of the game’s return: “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but rising every time we fall.”

Indeed, will be good to have cricket back as the players and fans alike head into unknown territory.


England squad:

Ben Stokes (c), James Anderson, Jofra Arche, Dominic Bess, Stuart Broad, Rory Burns, Jos Buttler, Zak Crawley, Joe Denly, Ollie Pope, Dom Sibley, Chris Woakes, Mark Wood

West Indies squad: 

Jason Holder (c), Jermaine Blackwood, Nkrumah Bonner, Kraigg Brathwaite, Shamarh Brooks, John Campbell, Roston Chase, Rahkeem Cornwall, Shane Dowrich (wk), Chemar Holder, Shai Hope, Alzarri Joseph, Raymon Reifer, Kemar Roach.  

Fixtures and telecast

Fixtures for the #RaiseTheBat Test series:

First Test: July 8-12 at the Rose Bowl, Southampton

Second Test: July 16-20 at Old Trafford, Manchester

Third Test: July 24-28 at Old Trafford, Manchester

Each day of play will begin at 1530hrs IST. Matches are live on the Sony Sports Network in India.

(With AFP inputs)