Sporting events are slowly coming back to life after an extended shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, with several football leagues having already resumed and the German Bundesliga completing its domestic season. Earlier this week, Formula 1 finally commenced its 2020 season with the Austrian Grand Prix. Other leagues such as basketball’s NBA have prepared roadmap to resumption.
Sport is slowly transitioning to the ‘new normal’, one where artificial crowd noise makes up for the absence of fans at venues and stringent measures are being taken to ensure the health and safety of players and other stakeholders of the sport.
Cricket too has had its share of followers starved for action for more than a hundred days now, waiting anxiously to witness the contest between bat and ball again. International engagements having been brought to a screeching halt in March as was the case with other sporting events.
Thankfully for cricket fans, they have to wait for just one more day now before the stars finally move on from the Instagram Lives and return to their ‘workstations’ — which will be Southampton’s Rose Bowl this Wednesday when England host the West Indies in the first of the three-Test series for the ICC World Test Championship, with the winner getting to hold the Wisden Trophy aloft.
Cricket finally makes its comeback after three long months, and it couldn’t have picked a better format than the gruelling, traditional five-day affair to mark its return.
Hosts England enjoyed a golden run last year, winning the ICC 50-over World Cup for the first time in the 44-year history of the tournament, and held Australia to a 2-2 draw in the Ashes at home. That was followed by successful tours to New Zealand and South Africa, and the Englishmen were on a winning high when the virus decided to play spoilsport for the entire world.
The three-month gap however, doesn’t quite take the ‘favourites’ tag away from the hosts as they seek to wrest the Wisden Trophy back from the West Indians, who currently are in possession of it after their 2-1 victory at home in early 2019.
The presence of tried-and-tested match-winners among their ranks along with other factors such as their lethal pace arsenal as well as a long batting order is what makes them such a difficult side to beat. Here, we take a look at some of these players from the home team who are likely to make a statement in the coming series and play a crucial role in their team’s quest to regain the trophy:
With Joe Root sitting out of the first Test to attend the birth of his second child, all-rounder and vice-captain Ben Stokes takes charge of the unit for the first international engagement of the post-lockdown cricketing world. Lest we forget, highlighting England’s glorious run in 2019 without mentioning Stokes’ superhuman contributions for the same would be criminal. Had it not been for his efforts in the World Cup final as well as the famous Headingley win, the year might have turned out very different for the team.
While Stokes certainly has the backing both of his captain as well as teammates such as Zak Crawley and experts such as Nasser Hussain, what will raise doubts is his relative inexperience at the job of leading a team, this being the first time the New Zealand-born cricketer will be leading at the professional level. Whether it affects his all-round abilities or brings out a new dimension in him as a cricketer as it did with the likes of Virat Kohli is something the remains to be seen.
There’s something about watching a foreign-born member of a team going up against the side representing his or her country of birth that makes for some compelling tales in sport (as was the case with Textgate).
The battle between Barbados-born tearaway pacer Jofra Archer against the West Indians had been played up from the time the Windies touring party departed from the Caribbean, and while pacer Kemar Roach insists Archer continues to remain friends with some of the ‘Men in Maroon’, the camaraderie will be nowhere to be found on the playing field when the two sides meet come Wednesday.
Archer could very well be described as England’s ‘Find of the Year’ in 2019, and while Stokes was painted as the poster-boy of English sport that year, Archer’s contributions in the World Cup and the Ashes also deserves to be listed as one of the key factors. And it’s not just his fiery pace; his handiness with the bat down the order further bolsters England’s reputation as a team that bats deep.
With his new-ball partner unlikely to feature in the opening Test at the Rose Bowl, James Anderson will be leading the English bowling unit with Archer and Mark Wood being the other frontline seamers for the hosts. While Anderson will certainly miss marking the start of the English summer with his favourite partner-in-crime, Stuart Broad’s absence does little to dampen the danger that the leading pacer presents to the opposition batsmen, especially — but not exclusively — in overcast English conditions.
The Burnley native, who turns 38 later this month, might be in the last stage of his storied career, but England strength and conditioning coach Rob Ahmun believes the sporting shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic may have inadvertently prolonged Anderson’s career. Whether it has further intensified the fire in his belly will make for an interesting watch.
Root’s absence in the first Test and the cloud that hangs over his participation in the remaining matches of the Test series does present itself as a window of opportunity for other aspirants, and the coveted No 4 slot in the batting order is expected to fall into the hands of Crawley.
The batsman from Kent has shown promising signs this year. Crawley’s 66 helped forge a century opening stand —a rare occurrence since Alastair Cook’s retirement — with Dom Sibley in the fourth Test against South Africa earlier this year. That was followed by scores of 43, 91 and 105 in the warm-up games in Sri Lanka in March before the tour got called off.
The pressure of occupying the usual spot of a batsman of Root’s stature could be intimidating for a cricketer new to the international scene, but any opportunity is valuable regardless of the circumstances in which it presents itself. Crawley will be hoping to make the most of the chance should he indeed get the inclusion in the XI.
Pope’s enjoyed a rapid rise as a reliable option in the English middle-order since making his debut against India at the ‘Home of Cricket’ in the summer of 2018, and his exploits in the tours of New Zealand and South Africa — finishing with a stellar average of 88.67 in the latter — bears testimony to his immense talent and the value that he brings to the side.
What stood out in his contributions against the Proteas was his resilience at the face of a rampaging bowling unit. More than once did he rescue his team from a bothersome spot and helped ease things out after a quick burst of wickets. The hosts will hope Pope will play a similar role this time around as well should they find themselves in choppy waters once again.
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