And so it re-begins. Test Cricket, the Awakening. Live from the locked-down environs of the Ageas Bowl, in a sterile world of fist-bump greetings and exam-room-style mealtimes. Where the players go through their daily routines with the detached immersion of astronauts in the International Space Station, and where Mark Wood belts out Jerusalem from the top of the pavilion like nobody's watching. Because nobody is. Apart from a handful of support staff, media representatives, hotel-workers, security personnel ... and a global cricket-starved audience of millions, for whom this through-the-keyhole experience marks the beginning of the end of the most extraordinary hiatus in most people's living memory.
Test cricket is back, though perhaps not quite as we have known it. It was 115 days ago in Colombo that England abandoned their final warm-up game against Sri Lanka Board President's XI and legged it for the airport to beat the closure of the world's borders. One day earlier, Barbados - the island that provides nine of the 15 players in West Indies' senior squad - completed their rout of Guyana in the regional Championship, bowling the hosts out for 55 and 94 in consecutive innings at Providence, with Kemar Roach, their man of the moment, claiming nine in the match.
And then, overnight, it all went quiet, as a world of YouTube nostalgia and disembodied Zoom punditry emerged from the wreckage of the world game's plans, as boards licked their wounds and counted their costs - most notably the ECB, who stood to lose an estimated £380 million if the entire summer of 2020, their year of new endeavours, was written off without a ball being bowled. And who could have imagined such a debasement of opportunity this time last year, when the 2019 World Cup was just a week away from that unsurpassable moment of crescendo, and when Ian Botham's heroics in 1981 were still the only Ashes Test truly synonymous with Headingley?
And in light of all that, the ECB deserve, and have received, huge credit for getting this show on the road. In creating and sustaining a series of bio-secure environments - at the Ageas Bowl and Emirates Old Trafford in the first instance, and more recently at Derby and Worcester where Pakistan's preparations for the August Tests are taking shape - they've provided a "blueprint" as Phil Simmons, West Indies' coach put it on Monday, for how other boards might hope to get their own schedules back up and running in the teeth of a pandemic. Not least Australia, whose own season suddenly seems in renewed jeopardy as Melbourne goes back into lockdown.
But the greatest kudos to date belongs to West Indies, an intrepid squad of tourists who suppressed whatever anxieties they might have had, and agreed to leave the relatively Covid-free islands of the Caribbean to embark on a two-month stint in one of the most prominently afflicted countries on earth. Touring life can be solitary and isolating at the best of times, let alone the worst of them, when you are a prisoner in your hotel room at night, and beholden to the rhythms of the gym and the nets by day. While no criticism can be attached to the three players who chose not to come, the true wonder is that more were not tempted to sit this out too.
And yet the squad has displayed focus and resolve in their preparations to date - they've brushed off the distractions that followed the sad death of Simmons' father-in-law and the cruel criticism of his attendance of the funeral, and quietly embraced the spirit of the Black Lives Matter movement, a cause that both sides will acknowledge with both a logo on their shirt collars and a gesture before the match, but one that, by its very nature, courses through the proud history of Caribbean cricket and surely will not prove to be anything other than an inspiration.
In terms of their actual preparations, West Indies' batting may have been a concern in two intra-squad warm-up games, but the same sweaty-toothed bowling attack that shredded England in Barbados and Antigua in early 2019 has been firing from the get-go. They are the holders of the Wisden Trophy, and they've got enough proud memories of both that series and of their miraculous run-chase at Headingley in 2017 to know that they'll enter this contest with a puncher's chance. Particularly against an England side shorn of their captain, Joe Root, through paternity leave, and therefore set to field one of their least experienced top sixes in more than 40 years.
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That's not to say that England's batting is notably weak - somewhat to the contrary, in fact. Their last significant cricket came in South Africa in December and January, where Ollie Pope and the newly sylph-like Dom Sibley produced break-out performances, and where Zak Crawley confirmed his own rich promise in a series of unflappable displays after Rory Burns had damaged his ankle playing football.
With Root to return at Old Trafford, and Essex's next big thing Dan Lawrence waiting in the wings, there's a sudden competition for places that could scarcely have seemed credible in the latter months of Trevor Bayliss's white-ball-focussed reign, when the desire not to upset the tempos of England's unfettered World Cup wallopers seemed to override all other considerations. And on that note, it was revealing how this band of players chose not to make a game of last week's intra-squad match - a chase of 98 off 96 balls in the final session might well have been on, especially with Ben Stokes still in the middle, but given what Roach did to England's positive intent in Barbados last year, it probably wouldn't have been the ideal mindset to cultivate.
Whatever occurs in the coming days, however, this match will constitute a journey into the unknown, even if more aspects of the daily tussle will be familiar than you might assume at first glance. After all, it's not as though playing in front of empty stadiums will be a complete novelty for the grand old format - anyone who's ever watched a five-day game in Dubai, for instance, will know that sterile environments were a factor in cricket long before they became a requisite.
But the fixed-camera images that were beamed out of the Ageas Bowl last week during England's three-day warm-up gave us a clue as to what to expect. In particular, the prevalence of headbands among England's fast bowlers will be a reminder of the new obligations in play for this series - sweat, not saliva, will be the connoisseur's choice for ball-shining. And no matter how many flashing boundary hoardings, and fully operational replay screens, and booming PA announcements the organisers choose to bring to the show, the other-worldliness this week will be tangible, even if the players on display will not.
(last five completed matches, most recent first)
West Indies WLLLW
In the spotlight
This time last year, Ben Stokes was gearing up for the biggest month of his career (on the field at least, given how close he must have felt to losing everything when West Indies were last in England for a bilateral series). His extraordinary displays, first in the World Cup final against New Zealand, and then in partnership with Jack Leach at Headingley, propelled him to a rare echelon among England cricketers, a status that was confirmed when he was named as the runaway winner of BBC Sports Personality of the Year. Like the rest of us, he could hardly have predicted how 2020 would pan out. But he can't have imagined either that he'd end up leading England in their first home Test of the season. There's no doubt he commands huge respect in what is temporarily his dressing-room - Sibley named him as a key inspiration for his renewed fitness drive during lockdown - and as a pure batsman he is among the finest in contemporary Test cricket. There's no reason why he cannot thrive in the short term in the role, just as Andrew Flintoff did in India in 2006, when he led from the front with the bat in particular. Whether he ought to be a candidate for the honours longer-term, the jury will remain out. But he won't be short of support on the field, even if the void in the stands deprives him of some of the adrenalin on which he so clearly thrives.
His old class-mate Carlos may be the Brathwaite whose name is truly remembered for his feats in the World T20 final, but Kraigg Brathwaite is the potential kingpin of a batting line that craves some solidity in what will surely be a bowler-dominated series. His form has rather fallen off a cliff since those twin scores of 134 and 95 underpinned that famous win in Leeds three years ago, and he was a subdued presence in the home series last year. But natural-born nuggets are a rare breed in modern Test cricket, and if he can reprise the form that has earned him eight centuries in 59 Tests to date, he'll go a long way towards giving his quicks a chance to get stuck in. A top score of 84 in the intra-squad fixtures suggests that he's had enough time in the middle to get his game in a good working order.
England's 13-man squad has locked in its batting at least. In the absence of Root, and with Stokes stepping up as captain, Joe Denly holds his place at No. 3 - he constitutes a senior statesman in an otherwise callow line-up - with Zak Crawley pencilled in at No. 4 ahead of Lawrence, whose time will surely come before long. As for the balance of the bowling, Stokes admitted it was a "head-scratcher", albeit a good problem to have. The balance, as ever, hinges on the enduring excellence of James Anderson and Stuart Broad, a pair for which England have been making succession plans for almost as long as their partnership has endured. The temptation to pitch Jofra Archer and Mark Wood together in Tests for the first time will be overwhelming, and the likelihood is that Broad - and Chris Woakes - will be the men to miss out.
England (possible): 1 Rory Burns, 2 Dom Sibley, 3 Joe Denly, 4 Zak Crawley, 5 Ben Stokes (capt), 6 Ollie Pope, 7 Jos Buttler (wk), 8 Dom Bess, 9 Jofra Archer, 10 Stuart Broad/Mark Wood, 11 James Anderson.
Jason Holder says he will leave his final XI to the "last minute", presumably with the possibility of the spinner Rahkeem Cornwall stepping into a pace-dominated line-up. The batting will hinge on Holder's own presence, muted though it was in the warm-ups, as well as the experience of Kraigg Brathwaite and Shai Hope, the central figures in that epic 2017 win. Roston Chase, who also claimed eight wickets with his spin in the Barbados win, will compete with Jermaine Blackwood in the middle order. After an injury scare, Shane Dowrich is expected to hold off Joshua Da Silva as wicketkeeper, despite the latter's assured century in the warm-ups.
West Indies (probable): 1 John Campbell, 2 Kraigg Brathwaite, 3 Shamarh Brooks, 4 Shai Hope, 5 Roston Chase/Jermaine Blackwood, 6 Shane Dowrich (wk), 7 Jason Holder (capt), 8 Rahkeem Cornwall, 9 Alzarri Joseph, 10 Kemar Roach, 11 Shannon Gabriel.
Pitch and conditions
Whisper it, but the weather for the coming week is not the scorching heatwave that most of the country had been basking during the locked-down part of the summer. Regular showers could punctuate the contest, and a further unknown will lie in the make-up of the Ageas Bowl wicket. While it might ordinarily be a groundsman's dream to have an entire summer to nurture your turf without any pesky cricketers digging their studs into it, for Simon Lee, newly appointed by Hampshire after 18 years at Taunton, he might conceivably have preferred a few county games to get fully acquainted with his loam. The deck for England's warm-up was undoubtedly on the slow side. A bit more carry for the main event would doubtless please the quicks on both teams.
Stats and trivia
The Ageas Bowl will be hosting its fourth Test match since its debut staging in 2011, and its first against West Indies. Previous opponents have been Sri Lanka and India (twice).
After going past 100 Test wickets in West Indies' last home Test, against India in Jamaica last summer, Jason Holder needs 102 runs to reach 2000 in Test cricket - a feat that only Sir Garfield Sobers and Carl Hooper have previously achieved for West Indies.
Ben Stokes, standing in for Joe Root, will become the 81st man to captain England in Test cricket.
An England victory would be their 50th in Tests against West Indies in 158 Tests. West Indies have won 57 of their previous contests, with 51 draws.
Kemar Roach needs seven more wickets to become the first West Indian fast bowler since Curtly Ambrose to reach 200 in Tests.
If Broad is omitted from the final XI, it will bring to an end a run of 51 consecutive home Test appearances, dating back to the Edgbaston Test against West Indies in 2012. Ironically both he and Anderson were rested for that match, a dead rubber.
"I haven't had much advice but there's been a lot of opinions flying around. But the best message I've received was when I got my photos done yesterday in my blazer. Rooty left a message on my hanger, saying 'do it your way'."
Ben Stokes takes up the captain's mantel with some sound advice from his absent team-mate
"Ben's always being talked up and quite rightly so, he's a really good cricketer, but the rankings say I'm the No.1-ranked allrounder, so I maybe don't get as much credit as I probably deserve. Who knows?"
Jason Holder has a quiet word about his understated abilities