A unique summer for cricket kicked off on July 8 as England faced the West Indies at the Ageas Bowl in Southampton.
After a long 115 days without cricket since the cancellation of their Sri Lanka tour in March, due to the coronavirus pandemic, and 163 days since the last Test was played in South Africa, the boys returned to Hampshire to face a strong and equally cricket-hungry team in a bio-secure arena. The lack of crowd and rapturous noise from the ‘Barmy Army‘ was noticeable from the outset and throughout! Despite this, the test match was the only cricket game being played and broadcast in the world, making it the most watched game of cricket in history, according to a commentator.
The West Indies team arrived in the UK on June 8 and had been staying at Old Trafford before arriving down south. Current Lions captain Joe Root stood aside for this match to be at home with family to await the birth of his second child, leaving Ben Stokes as captain with the advice ‘do it your way’. The arrival of his daughter was announced on the first day of the match.
In order to adhere to appropriate guidelines during the pandemic, a large squad of England cricketers entered a bubble at the AGEAS Bowl, chosen due to its on-site hotel to house the players, where they received regular testing to minimise the potential impacts of COVID-19 on the players and their support staff. Once in the bubble, the England squad saw ‘Team Stokes’ face ‘Team Buttler’ in an internal training match. Comments on the Instagram post announcing the team selection for this warm-up game revealed many fans felt strongly that Team Buttler was significantly stronger with the likes of Ollie Pope, Rory Burns, Dom Bess, Mark Wood, Jofra Archer, Stuart Broad and Joe Denly, in comparison to Team Stokes who namely had Dominic Sibley, Zak Crawley, Jimmy Anderson and Moeen Ali. These comments and predictions rung true when Team Buttler gave a more impressive performance. After this, a 13-man squad was selected before the 11-man team for the Test was revealed, in which Stuart Broad and Chris Woakes were dropped; the former later publicly revealed his frustration and anger at this decision saying “it’s not that those selected didn’t deserve to be but rather that everyone does”.
The excitement surrounding this Test was largely focused on the potential for players to demonstrate their skills and talent after such a long time since any cricket had been seen. A rehabilitated Stokes, the absence of Root, the decision to leave out Broad (one half of England’s long-standing opening pair of fast bowlers), and a chance for new players such as Sibley, Crawley, Pope and Bess to lay claim made for much anticipation and excitement. All in addition to watching the fastest pair of ‘quicks’, Archer and Wood play with an eye for the next Ashes series in Australia.
Prior to the Test beginning, all individuals in the grounds took the knee to show their support for the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, with the West Indies team also raising a fist. All donned the BLM logo in addition to black arm bands. England won the toss and chose to bat first—a surprising decision due to the forecasted weather conditions, and it turned out to be a gamble which did not pay off. A full day of cricket was not played until day 3 due to the rain, just to make an Englishman feel at home, making it a slightly anticlimactic start after such a long hiatus.
Nevertheless, play kicked off and, unfortunately for England, the West Indies got off to a great start. Within minutes of the first over beginning, the first wicket fell as opening batsman Sibley, who recently revealed he lost 2 stone in lockdown, was bowled out for a duck. A beyond frustrating return to the game for him, however this was only the beginning of a slow and lacklustre first innings for England. Intermittent play for the remainder of the day due to rain and bad light allowed the score to finish on 35-1 (Burns 20, Denly 14); a low score with few exciting moments. Entering into day 2, players and viewers were hopeful that the excitement would pick up for England.
Denly, Burns and Crawley were all dismissed in quick succession leaving England on an upsetting 71-4, though Burns did reach his milestone 1000 runs during this session. Another shock came as Pope, who showed incredible promise in the South African test, was dismissed on just 12 runs. Across a period of 16 overs, the score slowly crept up to 154-5 before Stokes was dismissed on 43 (c Dowrich b Holder); Holder took 6 wickets in total during the first innings. From there, Buttler, Archer, Wood and Anderson were dismissed whilst Bess achieved 31 runs, leaving England all out after 67.3 overs and handing the batting over to the West Indies on a final score of 204.
The West Indies stayed strong in their batting stint during the first innings. Opening batsmen Braithwaite and Campbell had a good start, racking up 43 runs between them before Campbell was dismissed due to an lbw (b Anderson). Day 3 saw Wood open the bowling leading to a close—missed—catch off of Hope’s ball. Nonetheless, three reviews later and Hope was dismissed with 16 runs (c Stokes b Bess) closely followed by an lbw for Braithwaite (b Stokes). Still, the Windies scored an impressive 140-3 showing they were playing the stronger game. After lunch, Bess took another wicket, dismissing Blackwood and Anderson added to this with an lbw for Chase. A brilliant catch from Archer dismissed captain Holder (b Stokes – adding to their rivalry) on just 5 runs leaving the Windies with 281-7. England started to look stronger at this point and the game seemed more focused. Joseph and Dowrich were promptly dismissed by Stokes, bringing his personal wicket total to 150, before Wood bowled the Windies all out when he dismissed Gabriel. So, England started to look slightly stronger in the face of some impressive play from the West Indies and as they entered the second innings they were trailing by 114.
The second innings saw some promising batting work from England. Both Sibley and Crawley achieved half centuries; the former was dismissed on 50 runs (c Dowrich b Gabriel), the latter peaked at 76 (c&b Joseph). Sibley was dismissed and then a no ball was called, and he was brought back before being dismissed again two balls later. A likely consequence of the half century distraction in addition to the initial dismissal. Crawley took a fast ball to his nether regions – a few moments on his hands and knees before Stokes joshed a bit and even the Windies players all had a sympathetic laugh with him too. Burns and Stokes were both dismissed just shy of achieving their half centuries. There was also frustration and disappointment for Pope, Buttler and Bess who were dismissed on 12, 9 and 3 respectively. This innings also saw Gabriel, of the Windies, take a 5-wicket haul! The day finished with Wood and Archer batting, who were fairly promptly dismissed on the final day with 23 and 2 respectively. Anderson managed 4 runs before England were all out, leading by 200. This left the Windies with a chance to win and meant for a very interesting final day’s play.
The West Indies did not disappoint when it came to their batting. They were set an achievable target of 200 to win, and they smashed it. A respectable start from Braithwaite and Campbell, until the latter retired hurt—returning later and contributing 8 runs—and Braithwaite was out for 4 runs (b Archer). Another wicket for Archer, who dismissed Brooks for a duck, and Hope goes on 9 after a brilliant delivery from Wood. Chase and Blackwood started pushing the total up, slowly but surely. At this point the game was looking close as England keeps the run rate low and the Windies focus on occupying the crease. Chase reaches 37 before he is dismissed (c Buttler b Archer) before Dowrich holds on for 20 runs (c Buttler b Stokes). The best performance came from Blackwood who managed an impressive 95 runs before Stokes gave a killer delivery, and Anderson managed a great catch to dismiss him just shy of a century. Holder began batting to bring the West Indies to 204 before they declared and were the rightful winners of the first match of the series.
Analysis: A disappointing but deserved loss for England
Ultimately, England deservedly lost. They didn’t play well and the West Indies were the better, stronger team during this match. They were more disciplined in their approach both with the bat and the ball, and with only three matches in the series, the West Indies have the upper hand. Having won the toss, our first innings was inadequate and one or two of the batsmen revealed familiar flaws that they must address, notably Sibley. With such a low score, we were always chasing the game. However, it could all still be to play for, and England need to put up a strong fight in Old Trafford for the second Test. In terms of changes for the next Test, I don’t foresee any surprising decisions other than the largely expected switch of Denly for Crawley. The next match is set to be exciting, and hopefully the return of Root as captain will benefit and focus England’s performance.
Result: West Indies win by 4 wickets.
England: 204 all out (67.3 overs), 313 all out (111.2 overs)
West Indies: 318 all out (102.0 overs), 200-6 (64.2 overs)