England-West Indies put on a safe and spectacular show, writes Ayaz Memon
Michael Steele

If you are a cricket lover, the first Test between England and West Indies which finished last Sunday, was unmissable. After four months there was finally some on field action, in itself a reason to rejoice and stay glued to TV. But that wasn’t all.

The contest itself was riveting. Though the first day’s play was badly hit by rain, the remaining four days produced tantalising cricket, fortune swinging one way then the other, before West Indies prevailed in a tense climax.

This was a most apt script for the resumption of Test cricket in the times of COVID-19. Not everybody was convinced that international cricket should resume with the coronavirus still raging all over the world, particularly in England.

Remember, this match came on the heels of the ill-fated tennis Adria Tour organised by Novak Djokovic which had turned out to be disaster when several players, including the world No. 1 himself, tested positive after throwing caution to the winds when mingling with crowds at the stadium and after-match parties.

The Adria Tour, it will be remembered, had to be scrapped after only the first leg. Players testing positive apart, it became a publicity disaster for the resumption of sport with the pandemic still looming menacingly over the globe.

The England Cricket Board (ECB), with the tacit approval of the West Indies cricket board and players, nevertheless went ahead with the series. And there was nothing that transpired in the first Test to suggest this was a misplaced decision.

If anything, the match at The Ageas Bowl was like an introduction into the circumstances in which international cricket could survive — through medical securities and changes in playing regulations — till such time that a vaccine for the dreaded virus is found.

No spectators were allowed. Remains to be seen how this will unravel over time, but in this first instance, compunctions that many (this writer included) had about a dampening effect on play seemed unfounded: All players seemed enthusiastic and motivated right through.

Of equal, if not more, interest was how players would respond to the new impositions in place for health safety as decreed by the ICC viz. no using saliva on the ball, no celebratory high-fives, maintaining enough social distancing in the dressing room.

Only the deeply discerning would have been able to see the uncharacteristic self-restraint being exercised by players. However, what was more pertinent was that there wasn’t a single action or episode to create the kind of alarm that the Adria Tour did.

What a pity then that England’s exciting new pace bowler Jofra Archer should have been prevented from playing the second Test (which started yesterday) for breaching the bio-secure protocol that has been put in place.

After the first Test, when the teams were moving from Southampton to Manchester, Archer hopped off en route to go to his flat in Brighton. This might seem innocuous, but in these terrible times – as evident from the spiralling number of COVID-19 cases – a deplorable risk to take.

On the morning of the second Test, the ECB decided to drop Archer, who was otherwise in the squad of 13 and certain to play. He has now been sent into self-isolation for five days, will have to undergo a couple of tests before he can rejoin the team.

This is an exemplary step taken by the ECB. It should serve as warning to players across the world – especially the big stars who might believe that no norms apply to them – as well as other Boards on how to tackle such a situation.

It is hoped – and most likely – that Archer’s tests will turn out to be negative. But that’s hardly the point. What if he had got contaminated from an asymptomatic source when he had left the team bus and ended up spreading the disease to several players?

That would have been catastrophic for not just this Test series, but also the sport itself. Whatever gingerly steps being taken for cricket to resume across the world would have been retraced. The message from this unsavoury episode is loud and clear: Don’t treat COVID-19 cavalierly.

Let me here get back to the contest in the first Test. England were strong favourites to win, especially playing at home. True, Joe Root, batting mainstay, was not participating having gone home to be with his wife expecting their child. But this was still a strong side.

How did England stumble? Enough post-mortems have been done on whether batting first after winning the toss was not a mistake, as indeed was leaving out stalwart Stuart Broad. Perhaps, but such hindsight ignores a few things.

One, the last time these two teams met – in the Caribbean – a full strength England side, including Root, had been thumped in two of the three Tests. Secondly, such explanations rob the West Indies of credit for a marvellous performance, with ball and bat, and for showing deep ambition.

For more than two decades, the biggest lament in cricket has been the steep decline of the West Indies, loss of the unique flavour and flair they bring to the sport. If this victory is even just a signal that a revival is happening, it's time to rejoice.

The writer is a senior journalist who has been writing on the sport for over 40 years.

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