In case you’ve missed any of the memos from the ECB in recent months, 2019 is a moderately significant year for English cricket. The small matter of a home World Cup, closely followed by the Ashes, offers the sport a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to regain some of the relevance that it squandered in the wake of the 2005 Ashes, and build the sort of head of steam required to make a success of the grand relaunch they’ve got planned for 2020 onwards.
No pressure then, as Joe Root’s men move into the first engagement of this most seismic of calendar years – a three-Test rubber against a West Indies side that (to judge by preconceptions) you might presume they have been beating in their sleep for the best part of 20 years. In fact, West Indies have got a very proud home record against the team that everyone most loves to beat, and plenty of incentive to extend one of the sport’s more unlikely unbeaten runs.
England’s last series victory in the Caribbean came way back in 2004 – when Mark Butcher, Nasser Hussain and Graham Thorpe were still in harness in the middle-order. They’ve returned twice since then but have managed just a solitary win in seven (technically eight) attempts. And even that overdue result, at St George’s in 2015 was undermined a week later, when they slumped to a pretty abject series-squaring loss in Barbados.
And when you consider the shock that West Indies pulled off 18 months ago in England, when Shai Hope and Kraigg Brathwaite inspired an incredible run-chase in the second Test at Headingley, the threat that they can yet pose is self-evident. That much can be seen in their recent Test record, under Stuart Law, the former coach who recently moved to Middlesex, they won six Tests out of 15 – not riches by any stretch of the imagination, but the sort of dangerously erratic record that a work in progress such as England cannot afford to take lightly.
England are, however, in an unusually good place in their Test cricket right now. Their 3-0 series win in Sri Lanka before Christmas was an eye-opening statement of intent – set up by speedy, purposeful batting, and sealed by a three-pronged spin attack that could not have been available to Root had it not been for the wealth of allrounders he was able to shoehorn into his team.
It followed on from a 4-1 series win over India – and how much more impressive does that now look after their demolition of Australia Down Under? – that seemed at times to lean far too heavily on a surfeit of runs from England’s lower-order, but which in hindsight now looks like a very cunning plan.
They are beginning to develop a squad for all occasions – although the sad loss of Olly Stone to a stress fracture in the lower back does mean that they do still lack the sort of out-and-out pace bowler that they’ll need to blood at some stage if they are truly creating an attack for all surfaces. Stone might not have been a factor this early in the series, given that a bowler of Stuart Broad’s pedigree still isn’t sure of regaining a permanent berth, but it’s been a while since England have had quite such an encouraging pressure for places.
West Indies, by contrast, do not lack for speed in their current incarnation. Kemar Roach and Shannon Gabriel have hurried up many sides in the recent past, while Alzarri Joseph (if fit) and Oshane Thomas promise no let-up on the speedometer if either or both are unleashed in the course of this series.
There’s no question that West Indies are up against it in this series, and the off-stage kerfuffle over the appointment of Richard Pybus as head coach will guarantee yet more tedious political recriminations if the early results don’t go their way. But England are in town and full houses are in prospect throughout the three-match series (albeit houses full of English support rather than the conch-blowing locals of old). If such well-set stages don’t tempt some scene-stealing performances from the home side, then nothing will.