The three-test series, to be played in a bio-secure environment and without spectators, was to mark the resumption of international cricket after the coronavirus shutdown.

England's Ben Stokes on July 8, 2020.
England's Ben Stokes on July 8, 2020. (Reuters)

The much-anticipated return of international cricket after almost four months has been, almost predictably, delayed by rain.

The start of England's first test against the West Indies in Southampton was pushed back on Wednesday after light rain and overcast skies delayed the 1030 GMT toss ahead of an 1100GMT start.

The teams are meeting in a "bio-secure environment" at Southampton's Ageas bowl with daily health checks for everyone in the ground –– which doesn't include fans –– in the first of a three-test series.

Former West Indies T20 captain Carlos Brathwaite told the BBC: "It's a duty for us as sportspeople to bring some normality back to the world. Hopefully we can get underway and bring some good back to the game and to the world."

It is now 117 days since England's warm-up match in Sri Lanka was abandoned due to the Covid-19 threat and no cricket has been played since.

England will be captained in the first test by Ben Stokes, standing in for Joe Root, whose wife is about to give birth.

West Indies, who like England have a strong bowling attack but a somewhat fragile batting lineup, are led by Jason Holder - the world's number one ranked test all-rounder.

Both teams are expected to "take a knee" before the start of the match, and a minute's silence will be observed to mark the victims of the virus and also former West Indies batsman Everton Weekes, who died last week.

England's players will also have the names of key workers on their training shirts.

Stokes, whose kit bears the name of Dr Vikas Kumar, a specialist in anaesthetics and critical care, said: "We're only able to play this match because of the amazing job that key workers up and down the country have done to help us through this pandemic.

"Wearing their names is a real honour for us, and is a small sign of our appreciation for the incredible work they have done."

Covid-19 tweaks to game

The series will feature many variations from a regular test due to the virus restrictions. There are home umpires, the first time in England since 2002, and because of that each team will have three referrals instead of the usual two per innings.

The match referee is Chris Broad, father of England bowler Stuart.

Players are not allowed to use saliva to polish the ball and umpires will not take jumpers and caps from bowlers.

The match is the first of six tests almost back-to-back for England, who go straight into a three-match series against Pakistan at the same closed venues in Manchester and Southampton in August. 

A smoothly run test series, played in a strict isolated environment featuring repeated Covid-19 testing and social distancing, can lay the blueprint for future matches and tours in cricket but also events in other sports targeting a resumption.

“If you get one thing wrong, it might blow this whole ‘getting sport back onto the radar’ further back,” England stand-in skipper Stokes said on Tuesday in his eve-of-game news conference.

Stokes also spoke about the “responsibility on our shoulders” to deliver a “massive occasion” for TV viewers who have been without international cricket for four months.

“I know everyone has been craving this from a player’s point of view,” he said, “but also I think from a spectator’s and fan's point of view.”

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Racial equality messages

And then there’s the message England and the West Indies players want to send about equality in sport and society in general in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement.

A BLM logo will be on the collar of the test shirts worn by players from both teams and there is set to be a “gesture” made by the teams before the game.

West Indies players have said the movement is a source of motivation on this tour.

“Not only has this been a period for us getting ready for a test match,” Stokes said, “it has also been great for us to have educational chats as a team around this and it has been really beneficial for a lot of our members.

“I feel as a team we have an opportunity to send a real powerful message and I am really excited as an individual, and the team is really excited, that we are able to be a part of that.”

New normal

Cricket’s oldest format kicks off a very new era for the sport. One where there are no spectators at matches, one-way systems inside venues to maintain distancing, twice-weekly testing for coronavirus, and players not allowed out of their hotels.

Players from the two teams will come into vaguely close contact with each other only on the field of play.

TV viewers will have the choice of adding a so-called “Lord’s hum” during coverage, but there will be no artificial crowd noise in the ground or music between overs, ensuring an eerie silence once the match begins except for selective announcements over the public address system about things such as milestones or bowling changes.

The big screens around the venue will show key highlights, DRS and sponsor messages.

The West Indies squad has been here since June 9 in order that the players could first quarantine at Manchester’s Old Trafford ground and then practise there in lockdown conditions. They had two intra-squad matches (England has had only one) before the squad travelled to Southampton for the match.

“We’re about to show that other places can start putting things together,” West Indies coach Phil Simmons said. “The England and Wales Cricket Board have to be commended for all the work they have done to get the series on the road and let’s see what other countries take from it.”

Simmons has had to self-isolate in his hotel room for a period after leaving camp to attend his father-in-law’s funeral last week.

The West Indies has not won a test series in England since 1988 but the team is the holder of the Wisden Trophy after a 2-1 victory in the Caribbean last year.

The other two tests take place in Manchester starting July 16 and 24.

Source: AFP