After months of waiting, Test cricket is finally back. Rarely has a visit from a West Indian team generated so much interest. Under the stewardship of Jason Holder, hopes of a West Indies renaissance are high. Their destruction of England in early 2019 brought back memories of glory days believed to be lost forever.
But England now believe they have a batting line-up and refreshed mentality to counter the most dangerous pace attacks. The doughty Burns-Sibley-Denly combination has been put into place with the sole purpose of allowing England's talented middle order to thrive. It is still early days in this process, but an impressive series victory in South Africa will encourage head-coach Chris Silverwood.
The West Indies may miss the resilience of Darren Bravo in their middle order. The left-hander is under-appreciated by both the West Indies board and their fans, and his decision not to tour could be a major blow. What they do possess is a returning Jermaine Blackwood. The attacking middle-order batsman has been a scourge of English bowlers in his stop-start Test career. Hitting the metronomic Anderson and Broad off of their lengths could be essential in a Test dominated by the bowlers. Blackwood is the main suited to that role.
There can be little doubt that the strength of both sides is their fast bowling. England has, for the first time since 2005, a stock of genuine quicks who can intimidate their opposition. With rotation likely to be a keyword this summer, this fierce competition for places could lead to some devastating displays of bowling. Besides, the experienced Anderson-Broad axis must be salivating at the prospect of bowling at the fragile West Indian top order.
The West Indies best chance of a victory may come in this first Test. Roots absence as a captain and batting lynchpin could expose a fragility within England's ranks. Led by Roach, the West Indies' pace battery obliterated England in two of the three Tests on the recent Caribbean tour. They will need to be close to their best and trust their beleaguered batsman to withstand England's assault.
Dom Sibley has the opportunity to solidify his position as an opener for years to come. His hundred in Cape Town was unfussy and effective, satisfying England fans who yearn for a Cook or Atherton-like figure at the top of the order. Where he will be challenged is no mystery. Sibley tends to flick short, straight deliveries to fielders on the leg side. By targetting his high left elbow, the West Indies bowlers have a clear weakness to expose. How Sibley survives and then counters this tactic, is essential for his growth as a Test batsman.
After his twin hundreds at Headingley in 2017, Shai Hope was heralded by the cricketing world as a new West Indian superstar. But since that momentous victory, Hope has struggled. Despite a highly impressive ODI record, Hope has failed to score another Test hundred. He is likely to bat at three or four and be a decisive figure in whether his team can cause another upset. He has the technique and temperament to succeed, will another trip to English shores revitalise his Test career?
Form Guide (Last 5 Tests)
England: Won: 3 Lost: 1 Drawn: 1
West Indies: Won: 2 Lost: 3 Drawn: 0
Pitch and Conditions
The Ageas Bowl offered up a slow surface during England's recent warm-up match. A repeat of this would not thrill either bowling attack, and batsmen will hope to thrive. The ground has hosted three Test matches, with England remaining unbeaten. Despite a low scoring thriller in 2018, batsmen have often flourished on flat Ageas Bowl pitches, with spin playing a big role on days four and five. In regards to the weather, the first day may see some rain, so a decision at the toss will not be straightforward.
England: Burns, Sibley, Denly, Crawley, Stokes(c), Pope, Buttler(wk), Bess, Archer, Broad, Anderson
Root's absence has led to a temporary reshuffle in England's batting lineup. Crawley may be selected at four to allow Denly a consistent run at number three. Eyes will be on Ben Stokes' performance, and whether his one-off stint as captain affects his game. The bowling line-up is less clear, but Anderson and Broad look likely to resume their record-breaking partnership with the new ball.
West Indies: Brathwaite, Campbell, Brooks, Hope, Chase, Blackwood, Dowrich(wk), Holder(c), Roach, Joseph, Gabriel
The West Indies face a dilemma whether to include spinner Rahkeem Cornwall in their XI. The Ageas has been a successful ground for spinner Moeen Ali in the past. However, it is believed they will favour all-out pace, with support from Roston Chase, whose spin destroyed England memorably in Barbados.
Overall Results in England
England wins: 34 West Indies wins: 30 Draws: 22
For more great England-West Indies moments: