England may be trying to turn a corner West Indies know only too well, and thoughts of Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad kicking their heels at home will take some shifting by their replacements, but the three-Test series that begins at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium on Tuesday has a greater significance.
On Sunday evening, the newly minted Richards-Botham Trophy was unveiled by the two cricketing titans who made their debuts together for Somerset in 1974, shared an apparently riotous flat in Taunton and have been like brothers ever since. Richards, 70 on Monday, remains in incredible physical nick, as if he could swagger out to the middle this week with gum in mouth and bat in hand ready to strike the fear of God into his opponents; Ian Botham, four years younger but fuller in figure and with the hobbling gait of an old bowler, would probably still back himself. When has he ever not?
Their fortunes during past battles may see some quibble here. Richards dominated England back in the day, a Test average of 62 against them his highest of all teams faced, but Botham less so against the great West Indies team he rates as the best in history. But the renaming of the trophy – if slightly unnecessary given the backstory of the Wisden Trophy and Learie Constantine’s involvement – is about a celebration of friendship between cricket in the Caribbean and England.
This was certainly in evidence two years ago when West Indies unflinchingly answered English cricket’s SOS, flying their Test team to the UK during the height of the pandemic. The players took a 50% pay cut in order to help out a board that struggles financially during the good times, let alone when the world has stopped, and the conditions they met were unprecedented.
It involved a tour spent in elaborate, restrictive biosecure bubbles at a time when no vaccine for Covid-19 existed. Reticence would have been understandable – indeed, three players opted out – but those who made the trip were impeccable, uncomplaining guests who pulled off a handsome win in the first Test and led the way for other international teams, including their women’s side, to follow.
By helping to get the TV money flowing they saved the England and Wales Cricket Board from catastrophe. This debt of gratitude is the reason why the latest encounter, originally slated for two Tests and three Twenty20s, has been fleshed out to three Tests plus the five Twenty20s that took place a few weeks ago.
As such, regular grumbles from aficionados about the use of more tourist-friendly islands – Antigua, Barbados and Grenada – and the growing absences from the traditional territories of Jamaica, Guyana and Trinidad should probably be parked this time. If this is the schedule deemed to generate the most money for Cricket West Indies, a board currently $23m (£17.5m) in debt, then who are the visitors to say otherwise? Even if CWI hits its target of $70m in revenues this year, this is still a fraction of the £207m they helped the ECB to secure in 2020/21.
Judging by the tour’s first week in Antigua, the estimated 5,000 travelling fans (with more expected to follow in Barbados) will be welcome. The tourism industry is slowly coming back to life on the island but a good number of businesses have not survived the ill-wind of the pandemic and there are some empty hotels starting to be overtaken by foliage rather than Britons and North Americans with bulging wallets.
Resilience is the hallmark of the region, however, and cricket-wise this has been needed. The regional four-day competition has only just returned after a two-year absence but though West Indies are languishing in eighth place in the Test rankings, they represent a stiff challenge for an England side that sit below them in the World Test Championship ladder (AKA rock bottom) and are trying to shake off a seven-week post-Ashes postmortem and reboot Joe Root’s captaincy.
History says as much, with England claiming one series win in the Caribbean from 10 since 1968. Three years ago, they were completely overwhelmed by a four-pronged pace attack in Barbados and Antigua for a convincing series defeat only mildly offset by a dead-rubber win in St Lucia with Jason Holder, then captain, banned for a slow over-rate and Mark Wood deliver a breakthrough spell of searing pace.
There remain concerns over the home side’s batting but Kraigg Brathwaite, who has since taken over as captain, comes into the series in form after a career-best 276 versus Jamaica last month. Holder is a world-class all-rounder, Kemar Roach is 19 wickets away from becoming the sixth West Indian to 250, while in Jayden Seales, the 20-year-old Trinidiadan, they possess a hugely promising, tall, aggressive quick who serves as a reminder of how verdant the Caribbean remains talent-wise.
There is a good deal of local surprise England have deemed the elite standards of Anderson and Broad to be surplus to requirements. Richards said he was amazed the pair were left out of the first Ashes Test in Brisbane and figured there must be serious talent coming through. Now, Antigua’s most famous son believes his old team have a “wonderful opportunity” in their absence, describing England as “a little bit flat”.
Root’s attack – most likely Chris Woakes, Craig Overton, Wood and Jack Leach initially, with Ollie Robinson yet again unfit – must therefore prove this prediction wrong, while a rejigged batting order with Alex Lees making his debut as opener simply has an initial target of passing 300 for the first time this winter. But whatever the outcome and any repercussions that follow, friendship should be the overriding theme of this tour.