West Indies and England face off in the first Test of a three-match series on at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium in Antigua on Monday, with both sides involved in reconstruction and rehabilitation following a wretched few months.
Facing the wrath of the Indian authorities following the abandonment of the tour there in October, and with several of their star players either overlooked by selectors or unwilling to represent the team, there is considerable trepidation over the prospects of the West Indies in the opening fixture, notwithstanding the ground’s reputation as a batting paradise.
Chris Gayle, who led the West Indies to an upset 1-0 triumph the last time the English played Tests in the Caribbean in 2009, announced his unavailability for the series, although he is turning out for the Royal Challengers Bangalore in the lucrative Twenty20 Indian Premier League.
Dwayne Bravo, captain of the squad who walked out of the Indian campaign, appears to be paying the price for his role in that fiasco, although the official line from the selectors — headed by former captain Clive Lloyd — is that they are looking to younger players to try to take the team forward.
While the West Indies were at least able to qualify out of their preliminary group at the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand last month, England failed to advance beyond the group stage, inviting widespread condemnation at home and fuelling speculation over the possible return of controversial batsman Kevin Pietersen for the Ashes series against arch-rivals Australia in three months’ time.
One batsman who is expected to make a return in Antigua is Jonathan Trott.
Seemingly lost to the game when leaving the last Ashes series in Australia after struggling to cope with the pace of Mitchell Johnson in the first Test in Brisbane, the 33-year-old South African-born player looks set to open the batting in his 50th Test with captain Alastair Cook.
Without a century for his country in more than a year-and-a-half, Cook is likely to attract almost forensic attention — both for his leadership and form with the bat — as England embark on an arduous campaign of 17 Tests over a nine-month period.
Rustiness will also be a concern as their last Test was more than eight months ago when they completed a 3-1 home series demolition of a dispirited Indian side.
Their brief build-up to this series was hardly taxing as the couple of two-day matches against a St Kitts Invitational XI provided such a low standard of opposition that the tourists resorted to using some of their squad players in the home team for the second match.
– Anderson eyes record –
However the game unfolds, England and their army of travelling supporters are anticipating at least one moment of celebration as experienced seam and swing bowler James Anderson needs four wickets in his 100th Test to surpass celebrated all-rounder Ian Botham’s tally of 383 — the most by an England cricketer in Tests.
Ironically, Anderson and the rest of the England pace attack are being mentored on this tour by fast bowling coach Ottis Gibson, who was surprisingly removed as head coach of the West Indies just a couple days before the home series against Bangladesh last August.
Former hard-hitting West Indies opener Phil Simmons, previously in charge of Ireland, was only announced two weeks ago as Gibson’s full-time replacement.
Simmons has been preparing the squad at a training camp in Antigua where the continuing good form of Devendra Bishoo looks certain to result in the return of the leg-spinner to the Test fold three years after his last match against Australia in Barbados.
Home captain Denesh Ramdin has spoken of relying on spinners to win the series for him, raising the prospect of a final XI comprising both Bishoo and left-armer Sulieman Benn.
That would leave Kemar Roach and Jerome Taylor, the destroyer of England in the decisive first Test in Jamaica in 2009, as the twin spearheads of a bowling attack that will be seeking to exploit and magnify any self-doubt among opponents who inevitably have one eye on their impending home duel with the Australians.