West Indies WLLLW
In the spotlight
This time last year, Ben Stokes was gearing up for the biggest month of his career (on the field at least, given how close he must have felt to losing everything when West Indies were last in England for a bilateral series). His extraordinary displays, first in the World Cup final against New Zealand, and then in partnership with Jack Leach at Headingley, propelled him to a rare echelon among England cricketers, a status that was confirmed when he was named as the runaway winner of BBC Sports Personality of the Year. Like the rest of us, he could hardly have predicted how 2020 would pan out. But he can't have imagined either that he'd end up leading England in their first home Test of the season. There's no doubt he commands huge respect in what is temporarily his dressing-room - Sibley named him as a key inspiration for his renewed fitness drive during lockdown - and as a pure batsman he is among the finest in contemporary Test cricket. There's no reason why he cannot thrive in the short term in the role, just as Andrew Flintoff did in India in 2006, when he led from the front with the bat in particular. Whether he ought to be a candidate for the honours longer-term, the jury will remain out. But he won't be short of support on the field, even if the void in the stands deprives him of some of the adrenalin on which he so clearly thrives.
His old class-mate Carlos may be the Brathwaite whose name is truly remembered for his feats in the World T20 final, but Kraigg is the potential kingpin of a batting line that craves some solidity in what will surely be a bowler-dominated series. His form has rather fallen off a cliff since those twin scores of 134 and 95 underpinned that famous win in Leeds three years ago, and he was a subdued presence in the home series last year. But natural-born nuggets are a rare breed in modern Test cricket, and if he can reprise the form that has earned him eight centuries in 59 Tests to date, he'll go a long way towards giving his quicks a chance to get stuck in. A top score of 84 in the intra-squad fixtures suggests that he's had enough time in the middle to get his game in a good working order.
England's 13-man squad has locked in its batting at least. In the absence of Root, and with Stokes stepping up as captain, Joe Denly holds his place at No. 3 - he constitutes a senior statesman in an otherwise callow line-up - with Zak Crawley pencilled in at No. 4 ahead of Lawrence, whose time will surely come before long. As for the balance of the bowling, Stokes admitted it was a "head-scratcher", albeit a good problem to have. The balance, as ever, hinges on the enduring excellence of James Anderson and Stuart Broad, a pair for which England have been making succession plans for almost as long as their partnership has endured. The temptation to pitch Jofra Archer and Mark Wood together in Tests for the first time will be overwhelming, but that might have to wait for a pacier deck at Old Trafford.
England (possible): 1 Rory Burns, 2 Dom Sibley, 3 Joe Denly, 4 Zak Crawley, 5 Ben Stokes (capt), 6 Ollie Pope, 7 Jos Buttler (wk), 8 Dom Bess, 9 Jofra Archer, 10 Stuart Broad/Mark Wood, 11 James Anderson.
Jason Holder says he will leave his final XI to the "last minute", presumably with the possibility of the spinner Rahkeem Cornwall stepping into a pace-dominated line-up. The batting will hinge on Holder's own presence, muted though it was in the warm-ups, as well as the experience of Kraigg Brathwaite and Shai Hope, the central figures in that epic 2017 win. Roston Chase, who also claimed eight wickets with his spin in the Barbados win, will compete with Jermaine Blackwood in the middle order. After an injury scare, Shane Dowrich is expected to hold off Joshua Da Silva as wicketkeeper, despite the latter's assured century in the warm-ups.
West Indies (probable): 1 John Campbell, 2 Kraigg Brathwaite, 3 Shamarh Brooks, 4 Shai Hope, 5 Roston Chase/Jermaine Blackwood, 6 Shane Dowrich (wk), 7 Jason Holder (capt), 8 Rahkeem Cornwall, 9 Alzarri Joseph, 10 Kemar Roach, 11 Shannon Gabriel.
Pitch and conditions
Whisper it, but the weather for the coming week is not the scorching heatwave that most of the country had been basking during the locked-down part of the summer. Regular showers could punctuate the contest, and a further unknown will lie in the make-up of the Ageas Bowl wicket. While it might ordinarily be a groundsman's dream to have an entire summer to nurture your turf without any pesky cricketers digging their studs into it, for Simon Lee, newly appointed by Hampshire after 18 years at Taunton, he might conceivably have preferred a few county games to get fully acquainted with his loam. The deck for England's warm-up was undoubtedly on the slow side. A bit more carry for the main event would doubtless please the quicks on both teams.
Stats and triviaQuotes
"I haven't had much advice but there's been a lot of opinions flying around. But the best message I've received was when I got my photos done yesterday in my blazer. Rooty left a message on my hanger, saying 'do it your way'."
Ben Stokes takes up the captain's mantel with some sound advice from his absent team-mate
"Ben's always being talked up and quite rightly so, he's a really good cricketer, but the rankings say I'm the No.1-ranked allrounder, so I maybe don't get as much credit as I probably deserve. Who knows?"
Jason Holder has a quiet word about his understated abilities