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England|West Indies chase bragging rights in a series to remember

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Whatever happens during the final Test, which begins on Friday (July 24) at Emirates Old Trafford, this series will be long remembered. The first international cricket after the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, played in two bio-secure bubbles in Southampton and Manchester without any crowds, with the backdrop of the Black Lives Matters protests and the games beginning with both sides taking a knee, the West Indian players raising their black gloved right fists. For a number of reasons, it has been a unique series and also, on the pitch, a fascinating one. With the series tied at one game apiece, the finale is fittingly set-up.

England’s victory in the second Test was as dominant as the West Indies’ had been in the first game at the Ageas Bowl. Ben Stokes did his best in Southampton but was unable to prevent Jason Holder, his rival as the world’s best all-rounder, leading his team to victory. Last week at Old Trafford, Holder was powerless to stop Stokes’s onslaught with both bat and ball and surrendered his place at the top of the ICC’s world rankings to Stokes as a result. Both players have made crucial interventions in this series. Will one of them have the final say?

Holder will certainly hope for more support from two of his top three batsmen. John Campbell and Shai Hope are averaging in the teens this series and don’t appear close to improving that form. Campbell simply cannot resist driving at anything full, a fool’s errand in England, while Hope never looks like getting out until he does, usually between scores of 20 and 30. West Indies’ middle order has stood up well, with Shamarh Brooksand Jermaine Blackwood looking the goods, but rescue missions from 30 for 3 will not always come off. There is also huge pressure on Kraigg Brathwaite, Campbell’s opening partner, to make runs every innings.

Given this game is the third of three back-to-back Tests, an unprecedented ask of the players, and the fast-bowlers in particular, there is likely to be some shuffling of the respective packs. England’s cohort of quicks have only played one Test each while Kemar Roach, Shannon Gabriel, Holder and Alzarri Joseph have played both games to date. West Indies’ assistant coach Roddy Estwick said the quartet would be offered the chance to back up once again but that would be a significant risk, particularly for Gabriel who is only just returning from an injury lay-off. This is where England have a clear advantage. Their bowling stocks are deeper than West Indies which means they can rotate with less drop off in quality.

Whichever team fails to win this series will be left with an unenviable recent record. England have won just one of their last four series involving more than one Test – albeit that was a fine victory in South Africa at the start of the year – while West Indies’ overseas record over the past ten years reads like a horror story: seventeen series played before this one and only four wins, two against Bangladesh, one against Zimbabwe and one against Afghanistan late last year. While both teams are clearly making progress in Test cricket, results are, ultimately, the yardstick by which every side is measured and they could both do with a victory to show for their efforts.

Not that any of the effort involved to get this series on will have been wasted. Far from it. Whatever the result, it has been a fine achievement to have even played these Tests and they have probably saved the game in England from financial ruin. That the quality of the cricket on show has been excellent is an added bonus. And while the uniqueness of this series will ensure it will be remembered, it should also be remembered for another reason: without the sacrifice of the West Indies, who have come to the UK, one of the worst affected countries, despite a 50% pay cut, none of this could have happened.