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New era for cricket as England, WI clash in first Test

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SOUTHAMPTON: Inter­national sport finally returns to Britain on Wednesday when England take on the West Indies in the world’s first cricket Test match since the start of March because of the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic.

Its clear the match being staged at the Ageas Bowl in Southampton is about much more than just cricket. A smoothly run Test series — played in a strict isolated environment featuring repeated Covid-19 testing and social distancing — can lay the blueprint for future matches and tours in cricket but also events in other sports targeting a resumption.

“If you get one thing wrong, it might blow this whole getting sport back onto the radar further back,” England stand-in captain Ben Stokes said on Tuesday in his eve-of-game news conference.

Stokes also spoke about the responsibility on our shoulders to deliver a massive occasion for TV viewers who have been without international cricket for four months.

“I know everyone has been craving this from a players point of view, he said, but also I think from a spectators and fan’s point of view,” said one of the best all-rounders in world cricket.

England and the West Indies will wear Black Lives Matter (BLM) logos on their shirts in support of the campaign against racial injustice and Stokes said his side planned a further ‘gesture’, although he did not specify if this would mean taking a knee.

“We aren’t in any way shape or form showing support towards any political matters on the movement,” said Stokes. “We are all about the equality through society and sport.”

West Indies players have said the movement is a source of motivation on this tour.

Crickets oldest format kicks off a very new era for the sport. One where there are no spectators at matches, one-way systems inside venues to maintain distancing, twice-weekly testing for coronavirus, and players not allowed out of their hotels.

Players from the teams will come into vaguely close contact with each other only on the field of play.

TV viewers will have the choice of adding a so-called Lords hum during coverage, but there will be no artificial crowd noise in the ground or music between overs, ensuring an eerie silence once the match begins except for selective announcements over the public address system about things such as milestones or bowling changes.

The big screens around the venue will show key highlights, Decision Review System (DRS) and sponsor messages.

The West Indies squad has been here since June 9 in order that the players could first quarantine at Manchester’s Old Trafford and then practice there in lockdown conditions. They had two intra-squad matches England have had only one before the squad travelled to Southampton for the match.

“We’re about to show that other places can start putting things together,” West Indies head coach Phil Simmons said on Tuesday. “The England and Wales Cricket Board have to be commended for all the work they have done to get the series on the road and let’s see what other countries take from it.”

Simmons has had to self-isolate in his hotel room for a period after leaving camp to attend his father-in-law’s funeral last week.

England’s buildup has been interrupted, too, by captain Joe Root having to leave camp to be at the birth of his second child. He will not feature in the first of three Tests, meaning Stokes has the captaincy for the first time.

“I haven’t had much advice but there has been a lot of opinions flying around,” Stokes said. “The best message that I have received was when I got my photos done yesterday [Monday] in the blazer. Rooty just left a message on the hanger which said: “Do it your way.”

Even though Root will not be with the squad at the Ageas Bowl, Stokes said he would not have any qualms about contacting his friend.

“Just because Joe is not here doesn’t mean I am not going to use him,” said Stokes, who will be captaining a team for the first time since he was a teenager.

“With Joe and his personal situation, it’s been about letting him deal with that. I haven’t been on him too much but I am sure when the Test match starts, I know for a fact he will be at home watching and I know that his phone will always be available for me to get in contact with him if I need to.”

Stokes’ first big decision as captain will be to name his team along with head coach Chris Silverwood and there are tricky choices to be made with his bowling attack.

James Anderson, Jofra Archer, Stuart Broad, Chris Woakes and Mark Wood are competing for the three pace spots alongside Stokes and off-spinner Dom Bess.

“It’s not very often that we’ve been in a situation where we’ve got six or seven bowlers to choose from,” Stokes said. “I’ve been dreading it the last three days, having to deliver bad news to some lads. It’s obviously not a nice thing to have to do, but that comes with being the captain and with being in a leadership role. It’s got to be done.”

West Indies have not won a Test series in England since 1988 but the team is the holder of the Wisden Trophy after a 2-1 victory in the Caribbean last year.

The other two Tests take place in Manchester, starting on July 16 and 24, respectively.

Teams (from):

ENGLAND: Ben Stokes (captain), Rory Burns, Dom Sibley, Joe Denly, Zak Crawley, Ollie Pope, Jos Buttler, Chris Woakes, Dom Bess, Stuart Broad, Jofra Archer, Mark Wood, James Anderson.

WEST INDIES: Jason Holder (captain), Kraigg Brathwaite, John Campbell, Shamarh Brooks, Shai Hope, Roston Chase, Jermaine Blackwood, Shane Dowrich, Rahkeem Cornwall, Kemar Roach, Alzarri Joseph, Shannon Gabriel, Chemar Holder, Nkrumah Bonner, Raymon Reifer.

Umpires; Richard Kettleborough and Richard Illingworth (both England).

TV umpire: Michael Gough (England).

Match referee: Chris Broad (England).

Published in Dawn, July 8th, 2020

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