After last winter’s horrendous run of results which saw England surrender the Ashes 4-0 and then lose to New Zealand after being bowled out for 58 in just 20.4 overs in the first Test, their supporters would have hoped for a big uptick in away Test form this time. They certainly had that in Sri Lanka, sweeping a three-match series against a team in Asia for the very first time.
They go into the upcoming three Tests against the Windies as favourites and with momentum on their side. With the Duke ball being used in this series England’s numerically best opening bowling combination of all time, James Anderson-Stuart Broad, will be feeling confident of making major inroads into the home side’s top order early in each innings. But it would be a mistake to think of this WINDIES side as a pushover. They are moving towards having a very competitive Test team even after struggling away to Bangladesh recently, and while they aren't a finished product, England have just as many questions to answer about team composition as the home side.
Shimron Hetmyer, fresh from securing a huge Indian Premier League contract and having impressed for the Guyana Amazon Warriors in the Caribbean Premier League and done well in maroon in India, is just about the most exciting young batsman in world cricket right now.
Shai Hope, who will have memories of his twin hundreds at Headingley from the last time these two teams met in 2017, fresh in his mind, is as classy a player as Windies have had in the last decade. With Darren Bravo also returning to the team there is a serious middle order that could make the most of home conditions if they can survive the new ball.
There are wickets in this Caribbean team as well. Jason Holder has just been picked for the ICC Test team of the year after taking 33 wickets at 12.39 over the qualifying period. There may be more exciting all-rounders in world cricket right now, but none as reliable. As a player and as a leader he has become a big presence in this team.
Kemar Roach has now broken into the top 10 Windies wicket-takers of all time and has said he has 200 Test scalps in his sights. Alzarri Joseph is an exciting young talent, although something of an injury doubt. His understudy, Oshane Thomas, is lightning quick and picks up wickets for fun. If he can turn his T20 form into Test match performances, he can be a fantastic player in the longer format.
There are issues for the home team, not least the openers who have been struggling. Kieran Powell is not in the squad for the first Test after struggling as Windies lost heavily in Bangladesh. He has been replaced by 25-year-old John Campbell who has a reasonable, but far from a spectacular first-class record. Campbell will have a stiff task against the England seamers, we will learn a lot about his technique and his character in this series.
The spin options in this Caribbean team are interesting, especially as the pitches in the Caribbean become more friendly for slow bowlers as time passes. Roston Chase can send down some very serviceable overs of spin, but the real job will be done by Jomel Warrican who has had a mediocre start to his Test career so far. Seven Tests in the last four years has seen him take 21 wickets at 38. These aren’t the sort of numbers that could blow you away, but there are signs that things are starting to come together for the spinner from St Vincent. In a recent match against Jamaica, he took 12/116 in the Regional 4 Day Tournament. Those are the kind of match figures that turn heads.
For England, all the issues that they have had in Tests in the last few years are still there, with a team that can be superb when everything clicks and dreadful when it doesn’t. Keaton Jennings bought himself some time at the top of the order with an unbeaten 146 against Sri Lanka, but perhaps perversely for an England opener, his issues at this level have been more against pace than against spin. This tour will be a thorough examination of those technical issues.
His opening partner, Rory Burns, made 155 runs in Sri Lanka to show glimpses of a player who could thrive at this level, but he will need runs in the Caribbean to be guaranteed a spot in England’s team for the Ashes. If Roach, Joseph and perhaps Thomas, can get the two openers early there could be a chance of them making real inroads.
The next part of England’s order can be their strength. With Jonny Bairstow, Joe Root, Jos Buttler and Ben Stokes England have four players who can take games away from the opposition. The issue has been a lack of solidity. Root aside all of these players are shot makers who take risks. They have unreal talent, but they can also collapse in a heap. The chance of getting the openers early and inducing an England collapse is how Windies can burgle a win in one of these matches. But they will need new ball wickets for that to happen.
England have three spin options that have the potential to do real damage against a Windies batting line up that has struggled against the turning ball. In England’s win against Sri Lanka the wickets from Jack Leach, Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali were the reason for so much of England’s success. In Antigua where you can expect the ball to turn, and in Barbados where the pitch will wear, they could be match-winners for England.
Then there are Anderson and Broad. With 998 Test match wickets between them they will breach the 1000 mark this series, and with the consistency of Anderson and the mercurial spells of Broad they have the chance to put England in front early on, and this England side is a team that do well once they are front runners.
England should win this series, even though wins in the Caribbean have been a rarity for them, they are the better team. But that isn’t to say that the Windies should be underestimated. There are match winners in this Windies team, and if two or three of them click in this series England could be heading home with a Test winter that started brightly in Sri Lanka but ended on a sour note.
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