Hello everyone and welcome to the first Test. It’s not just the first Test of a new series, which is always mouth-watering: it’s the first test of a New England. This is the morning after the night of the long knives.
Gone are the head coach, the head coach’s boss, the batting coach, the opening pair that played most of the Ashes series, the No 3 who was there throughout, the No 6 who was supposed to be a rising star, the regular wicketkeeper and sometime vice-captain – oh, and the two most prolific seamers in England’s history. And yet they still have the same captain, fresh from ten defeats in the past 15 Tests. So the question is: was it the night of the wrong knives?
Today we begin to find out the answer. Joe Root and Ben Stokes, the sole survivors from the top seven that started the Ashes, are joined by Zak Crawley, a dasher just emerging from a dreadful year; Alex Lees, a blocker making his Test debut; Dan Lawrence, a talented understudy now thrust into the center stage at No 4; and Jonny Bairstow, the bit-part player who ended up as England’s best batter in Australia.
The gloves go back to Ben Foakes, who becomes England’s fifth Test keeper in the past ten months: after Bracey, Buttler, Bairstow and Billings, it feels like Buggins’ turn. But Foakes is a class act, silkier than the rest. The new ball, owned by Anderson and Broad for the past 14 years, will be handed to Chris Woakes and, for the first time, Craig Overton. Both are skilful bowlers and useful batters, but in Australia one of them was at his worst and the other could not get a game even when England were falling apart. Will they feel the faith Root is suddenly placing in them, or the pressure he is putting them under?
First change will be Mark Wood, who is super-fast and a top-class tourist but recovering from illness and prone to injury. The fourth specialist bowler is likely to be the lone spinner in the XII, Jack Leach, who tends to struggle in the first innings of a Test. The senior bowler is now Stokes, who is still getting over a side strain. It all adds up to a set of gambles that could easily turn into a shamble.
West Indies’ line-up is even less seasoned yet slightly more settled. There are only four men in this match with a Test bowling average under 30, and every one of them is a West Indian. Kemar Roach is a proper leader of the pack, Jayden Seals an exciting beginner, Jason Holder a superb third seamer, Alzarri Joseph a rapid back-up, Kyle Mayers a handy medium-pacer. The batting feels more fallible, although the captain, Kraigg Brathwaite, arrives on a high after making a career-best 276 for Barbados against Jamaica, and England saw in the T20 series that when Mayers hits the ball, it stays hit.
On paper this looks like a low-scoring dogfight. But the Viv Richards Stadium is the most draw-friendly ground in the Caribbean with only five results in its ten Tests to date. The pitch is apparently shorn, so it could be flat and slow – though there are showers about that should freshen it up for the fast bowlers. Play starts at 10am in Antigua, 2pm GMT, and I’ll be back about 25 minutes before that with the toss and the teams.