Old rivalries renewed as Stokes prepares to face his demons
March 3, 2017
Start time 0930 local (1330 GMT)
After the rigours of a winter in the subcontinent - and with little to show for their efforts following gruelling losses in all three formats against India - a spring sojourn in the Caribbean, three ODIs in the course of a fortnight on tour, has the distinct flavour of a rest cure. Nothing, however, is quite that straightforward for one-day cricket at the moment, as West Indies' absence from this year's grand jamboree amply testifies.
Could it be that West Indies' failure to qualify for this summer's Champions Trophy is the wake-up call that cricket in the Caribbean has long needed? This time last year, of course, they were beating England in thrilling fashion in the final of the World T20, but that emotional triumph was achieved, quite literally, in spite of the WICB, which remains defiantly at loggerheads with so many of its star players, as epitomised by its failure to select the man of that match, Marlon Samuels, for these three games.
But at the same time, the cosy assurances that West Indies cricket would forever be invited to the sport's biggest gatherings has been shattered, and already their new coach, Australia's Stuart Law, has admitted that qualification for the 2019 World Cup is the team's over-riding priority.
They are currently ranked at No. 9 in the world, one place outside the automatic slots, and it's fair to say that West Indies' record against England in the coming six months will make or break their ambitions. They have these three games, plus five more in the summer, ahead of September's qualification cut-off, and there's no time like the present to get their late push up and running.
And what of England, the renaissance team of world white-ball cricket? Their stunning coming of age since the 2015 World Cup has been dissected ad nauseam but, two years down the line, Eoin Morgan's men can no longer get away with surprising people with their potential. In particular, despite their fighting efforts in a historically heavy-scoring ODI series in India, their ambitions faltered because of the shortcomings of their bowling attack. These three matches - plus five more against Ireland and South Africa in May - will be critical to their fine-tuning process.
They go into the series with a glut of absentees. David Willey, Mark Wood, Jake Ball and Reece Topley are among the seamers who might have been expected to press their claims in these three games, but injury has struck them all down and instead the stage is set for the likes of Liam Plunkett, Steven Finn and Tom Curran - newly inducted into the squad after a hefty journey from the heart of Sri Lanka.
(last five completed matches, most recent first)
West Indies: LLTWL
In the spotlight
Sometimes the best place to hide is in plain sight, out in the middle of a cricket field. That is rather how Ben Stokes feels, after admitting his discomfort at talking about his status as England's most newly-minted cricketer. And yet, even without the small matter of USD 2.16 million in his back pocket, following his stunning acquisition by Rising Pune Supergiant in the IPL, Stokes was destined to be the talk of Antigua, given what happened to the last four balls he sent down against West Indies, in the World T20 final in Kolkata. And, even if that experience had all been a bad dream, we'd still have Stokes' last visit to the Caribbean to look back on, and that broken hand courtesy of a punched locker in Barbados. In an otherwise low-key series, his presence alone adds an element of vital intrigue.
It takes two to tango, however, and in the maroon corner, Carlos Brathwaite is revving up to resume his heavy bombardment against an England bowling line-up that - for all their strides as a team - has been under the cosh in recent contests. At least, that's how the narrative is meant to pan out. Unfortunately for Brathwaite, life hasn't been quite that simple since Kolkata. Expectations, both personally and from West Indies' fans, have been through the roof in the past 12 months, much like those four sixes had been. "Unfortunately, it went downhill quickly," he told the Daily Mail. "Because of what happened that night, people expected things and I guess, for a brief period, I expected them as well. It became a negative." He has the chance, over the course of these four matches, to reset his ambitions, and those of his team.
Kieran Powell, back in West Indies' one-day squad for the first time in three years, could pick up where he left off by facing England in an ODI at Antigua, just as he did on his last appearance in March 2014. If selected, he is likely to open the batting with Evin Lewis, who cemented his claim to a top-order berth with 148 in a thrilling run-chase against Sri Lanka in November.
West Indies (probable) 1 Evin Lewis, 2 Kieran Powell, 3 Kraigg Brathwaite, 4 Shai Hope (wk), 5 Jonathan Carter, 6 Carlos Brathwaite, 7 Rovman Powell, 8 Jason Holder (capt), 9 Devendra Bishoo, 10 Ashley Nurse, 11 Shannon Gabriel
Though Ball remains with the England squad, he didn't look comfortable during training and is unlikely to be risked following his knee injury. Alex Hales is likely to sit out as well as he fine-tunes his recovery from a broken hand, while Tom Curran is still in transit and won't be in the frame until the second match at the earliest. Therefore, Sam Billings is expected to open with Jason Roy, with Jonny Bairstow squeezed out of a strong middle order. Plunkett and Finn could both feature, along with both the front-line spinners, Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid.
England (probable) 1 Jason Roy, 2 Sam Billings, 3 Joe Root, 4 Eoin Morgan (capt), 5 Jos Buttler (wk), 6 Ben Stokes, 7 Moeen Ali, 8 Chris Woakes, 9 Adil Rashid, 10 Liam Plunkett, 11 Steven Finn.
Pitch and conditions
In a development that would make Antigua's local heroes Curtly Ambrose and Andy Roberts weep, Caribbean wickets tend to be pretty slow and low these days. Nevertheless, England's captain, Eoin Morgan, admitted he had been surprised by the amount of grass still in evidence on this surface. With a 9.30am start in the offing, there may be some early assistance for his seamers if he manages to call correctly and bowl first.
Stats and trivia
- Stokes' locker punch in 2014 was not the wisest shot he has ever played, but dare one say it, his frustrations were justified. In his last three ODIs in the Caribbean (all in Antigua, in fact) he made a grand total of nine runs in three innings, and took no wickets in six overs.
- Brathwaite's struggles to live up to his Kolkata heroics have been telling. A grand total of 248 runs at 16.53 in 18 subsequent innings, with his solitary half-century coming in his one-off Test appearance against India in Antigua. Having struck four sixes in as many balls in Kolkata, he's managed 11 more in 301.
- It is technically an away fixture for England although, in keeping with recent Test tours of the Caribbean, the visiting support is likely to be vast. Of a ground capacity of 13,000, some 7,000-8,000 tickets have been sold to England supporters.
"I know the media will bill the series as Carlos Brathwaite v Ben Stokes, but it's West Indies v England."
Carlos Brathwaite astutely gauges the level of personal interest in his rivalry with England's allrounder
"We do have one eye on the Champions Trophy, getting a reasonable squad together before then and one idea of nailing down our team."
Eoin Morgan states his goals for the series
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket