When England last pitched up to the Sir Viv Richards Stadium for a Test match they were detained for only 10 balls. The sandy outfield –leading most of the wags in the press to suggest that Antigua had 366 beaches, not the 365 usually claimed – made playing impossible.
It was one of the more embarrassing episodes in recent West Indies cricket history, which has not been short of embarrassing moments.
There will be no repeat today when the teams return to the ground – the run-ups these days are positively lush – and the first Test match of the 15th series between the sides in the Caribbean could easily go the full distance.
England are confidently expected to win for only the second time in nine series. But then that was the case six years ago, when they could not quite come back from a dismal performance in the opening Test and were twice held at bay by West Indies rearguard actions.
Favouritism does not bestow certainty. West Indies are a long way from being the power of old but under their new, savvy coach, Phil Simmons, they will not be swept aside easily.
England will have to be at their most patient and vigilant on pitches that are likely to be slow and will wear quite early. They are prepared for long passages of play when not much will happen. If and when something breaks they have to be ready to take advantage.
After only four days of cricket last week in St Kitts, some of it against substandard opponents, some of it among themselves, England are not truly honed for a Test series. Although they are making the right noises, they probably know it. In the old days sides spent a month acclimatising and playing before a series began.
“That’s probably why it’s so hard to win modern series away from home, with the short preparation time,” said Alastair Cook, who will be England captain for the 29th time in a Test match. “You do need probably more time than one game.
“But that’s the situation we found ourselves in and that’s not an excuse or anything. We understand the World Cup has just finished and tours have got to be played and we’ve got to adjust to that, and it is a big advantage for the home team, make no mistake, but I know our guys are ready to play, they’ve got a lot of miles in their legs, they’ve played a lot of cricket – yes, probably white-ball stuff – but they’ve played a lot of cricket and they’re just desperate to play in what’s going to be a fantastic event.”
This match is the first of 17 Tests across five series that England will play in the next eight months. The Caribbean assignment is generally reckoned to be the least onerous, followed as it is by home series against New Zealand and Australia and away series against Pakistan and South Africa. Lose here and optimism will be sunk.
If Cook is still captain come the end of the tour of South Africa next January his team will certainly have won more matches than they have lost and probably have regained the Ashes. If he needs wins, he needs runs just as much. The brutal fact is that 31 innings without a hundred is too many.
Although he denied it yesterday, the fact that Cook is no longer playing one-day cricket may help him in the Test arena. Players always like to think that it is simply their job to play all formats but they demand attributes and now there should be no chance of Cook’s approach being compromised or diluted. He can leave those balls on or around where fourth or fifth stump would be.
The work he has done with his old mentor, Graham Gooch, in the past few weeks may come to be seen as hugely significant. If Cook can return to something like the player he was a little more than two years ago it will transform England’s fortunes.
The other key factor will be the contributions of Jimmy Anderson, who is playing his 100th Test match, the 13th man and only the second fast bowler after Sir Ian Botham to make the landmark for England. Anderson is also only four wickets away from overhauling Botham’s record of 383 Test wickets, which has stood for nearly 23 years.
There is the suspicion that Anderson is not quite the bowler he was. His returns in the recent World Cup were deeply disappointing and if he is too far below his old peak England will be in big trouble this year. He will be 33 this July and has bowled more balls for England – 22,114 and counting – than anybody else.
Fortunately, he still has the appetite and appears to want to play for at least another two or three years. England want him, need him still to be a force for the next few months at least.
England, who are missing both Moeen Ali and Chris Woakes, will resist the temptation for too much tinkering. Jonathan Trott will be Cook’s opening partner, Ben Stokes will be restored as the all-rounder and Anderson, Stuart Broad and Chris Jordan will be the other seamers.
If not by the end of the series, then some time soon, expect Mark Wood of Durham to be given an opportunity. He has played only 17 first-class matches but he looks the real deal.
James Tredwell is the improbable spinning option. Last season Tredwell had to seek Championship cricket elsewhere because he could not get into the Kent side. It is hardly his fault but it does show the dearth of quality spin in the country.
West Indies are rebuilding yet again. It is difficult to think that they will be a match for England and, though the talent flourishes, the rigours of Test cricket will probably catch up with them at some point.
A tour of West Indies is perhaps not what it once was. England should be grateful for that, considering that for two decades it was like being in hell in paradise. This will not be a pushover, far from it, but England should win two matches.Reuse content