In normal times, the Test series between England and West Indies would be a rather unremarkable contest. For the past two decades, once mighty West Indies – basically unbeatable in the ‘80s during a decade when they did not lose a Test series – have spiraled in cricket’s longest format to sadly become a mediocre Test team.
A little like the Chicago Bulls since the Last Dance season, but only worse. Although they’ve shown improvement in recent years and there is the tantalizing prospect of a swift rise if they can play more regularly – an indictment for non-powerhouse cricket nations.
The series was supposed to be the entree of the U.K. Test summer followed by the main treat Pakistan, the mercurial team who seemingly play their best in the seaming English conditions.
But these, of course, are not normal times. The first Test between England and West Indies in Southampton signaled international cricket’s return after an almost four-month hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
It meant this Test played behind closed doors had the attention of the entire cricket fraternity with bored fans worldwide starved of the sport they love.
Fittingly, the rain-affected first Test conjured a memorable final day with West Indies needing a nerve-jangling 200 runs in the fourth innings – a position they had never previously squandered in 60 Tests.
And they kept that remarkable streak alive with a brilliant four-wicket victory to continue a recent stranglehold over England.
Without the energy of their rowdy supporters, England just couldn’t summon enough breakthroughs despite the fiery efforts from Barbados-born Jofra Archer who kept the Test tense through explosive short-pitched bowling.
Archer fell through the West Indies cricket system after feeling snubbed over missing out on selection for the U-19 World Cup and shortly after moved to the U.K. in a bid to play for England where he held British citizenship through his father.
The 25-year-old speedster was a sensation last year during his international initiation amid England’s most momentous summer, but he lacked support on the final day in a bowling attack controversially without axed veteran quick Stuart Broad.
Jermaine Blackwood proved the hero with a near century for a determined West Indies as he blunted Archer and smartly played his shots against the rest to spearhead a famous victory for the tourists, who played impressively throughout and deserved the win.
Perhaps it could be the making of this West Indies Test team, who showed plenty of guts to even tour a country particularly hard hit by the coronavirus.
It’s not right to feel ungrateful during these grim times but the tense finale – where all four results were a possibility – was made for spectators, who would have been on the edge of their seats.
Unlike more intimate fan experiences – such as the various football codes – watching the Test on television played in front of empty grandstands had not been too jarring for such a slow tempo sport like cricket. Tests, unfortunately, around the world are often played amid small crowds – a hollow surround cricket fans are somewhat familiar with.
The Sky Sports broadcast used a fake crowd noise – a reassuring murmur that is synonymous with cricket ground ambiance. But, smartly, didn’t go overboard – which has been a tricky juggling act in other sports around the world where sometimes the canned sounds have been overbearing – and neglected simulated cheering when wickets fell or runs were scored.
Still, it’s a shame there were no fans in attendance to watch Blackwood’s masterpiece and his absorbing battles with Archer. The match was simply a low-scoring thriller – cricket is always more riveting when ball dominates – which probably wasn’t surprising considering both teams had batting deficiencies with England’s exacerbated by the absence of captain Joe Root.
But, more importantly, the Test will endure for its anti-racism messages. A Black Lives Matter logo was on the collar of the shirts worn by players from both teams and players pre-match kneeled in support of the movement.
The most impassioned rallying cry came from West Indian legend Michael Holding and former England women’s cricketer Ebony Rainford-Brent, who both spoke in a video aired before the Test about racism they had experienced during their careers.
An emotional Holding followed up and addressed the issue during a rain delay in a four-minute monologue that instantly went viral on social media and hailed by The Guardian as “eloquent, intelligent, and confrontational broadcasting”.
“History is written by the conqueror, not those that are conquered,” Holding said. “History is written by the people who do the harm, not by those who get harmed, and we need to go back and teach both sides of history and until we do that and educate the entire human race, this thing will not stop.”
The rather conservative British sport of cricket – a game that according to the BBC was once the “exclusive preserve of colonial elite”- has arguably never been played amid such a poignant and powerful backdrop.
It was wonderful to have cricket back – even more so than expected.