It is rare for a pit-stop tour, such as the three match ODI series between England and the West Indies beginning on Friday, that one of the two teams involved makes waves around the world. But England travel to the Caribbean with valuable cargo on board.
For Ben Stokes has become the most expensive foreign player in the history of the Indian Premier League. The Rising Pune Supergiants paying £1.7 million for his services, in last Monday’s IPL auction.
Despite a rumored £100,000 being docked from his England central contract in a rule that aims to deter England’s stars from playing in the IPL as it clashes with county cricket’s preseason, Stokes not only flies to the Caribbean a much wealthier man, but with added expectation that comes with such a price tag.
Along with IPL newcomer and the sixth most expensive player of this year’s tournament Chris Woakes, the allrounders, who ultimately fight for one another’s place in the longer format, will be eagerly watched from India and beyond.
The three match series – which opens with two fifty-over games in Antigua before moving to Barbados – will be the last time the pair will play limited overs cricket before the tournament beings on 5th April.
Critics, however, might merely call this IPL chatter a distraction. There is also much important business for England in the West Indies. The tour is an important ‘warm up’ to the South Africa series and Champions Trophy; both on English soil this summer.
A disappointing limited overs campaign in India means that Eoin Morgan’s team must convincingly defeat their hosts. This is particularly prudent given that the West Indies themselves failed to qualify for the Champions Trophy and are currently outside of the automatic qualification zone for the 2019 Cricket Word Cup.
In the latest ICC rankings, released on 22nd February, England sit fifth in the One Day standings, only four places ahead of their hosts. But in practice, the rankings hide the uncomfortable fact that the West Indies are often more ferocious than their standing would suggest.
The World T20 final against England proved that this is particularly true when the men in maroon have a point to prove. And in a bid to regain their place at cricket’s top-table, they might just be the banana skin England had hoped to avoid.
West Indies captain Jason Holder is, however, the only top 10 ranked player from his country. According to the ICC, Holder is the highest ranked all-rounder to play in this series, Ben Stokes a place behind him in eighth and Moeen Ali just makes it into the top 10.
Beyond this England are certainly the stronger and more experienced team.
The last time England crossed the Atlantic all three one-day games were played at Antigua’s Sir Vivian Richards Stadium and England took the series 2-1.
Then it was the spinners who made the significant contribution, taking 15 wickets across the series and providing the comeback their country required, having been 1-0 down after the first match. Additionally, what gave England the edge was their ability to support the spinners with accurate seam bowling from Tim Bresnan and Stuart Broad.
Whilst Broad has not featured in an ODI for England since the South Africa series, his fellow Nottinghamshire bowler, Jake Ball should be given the nod ahead of Liam Plunkett, but suffered a knee injury bowling in the second warm up game in St Kitts. Like Bresnan, Ball’s fast-medium pace would suit both the Antigua and the Kensington Oval wicket.
Without him, Stokes and Woakes are likely to play an even more important role than the one assigned them. The all-rounders both took wickets – 3-35 and 2-37 respectively – in England’s 2 wicket victory over the WICB President’s XI. England’s first outing in the Caribbean, however, had ended in an 117 run defeat, their bowlers largely ineffective, none aggressive enough to spearhead the attack, which is so key in the Caribbean.
Indeed, the most recent 50-overs game in Barbados, the Tri-series Final between Australia and the West Indies, saw Australia’s right arm fast-medium bowler Josh Hazlewood take 5-50 and Mitchell Marsh’s ever-so-slightly slower paced deliveries result in 3-32 in support.
If England’s pair of Stokes and Woakes can be accurate with their lengths and keep disciplined, it could easily be a Champaign series for England’s bowlers.
Still, equally as likely, the West Indies might have the final say. In their quest to rebuild their reputation Holder’s men can easily stun an opposition, as England – and significantly Ben Stokes – discovered the last time these teams met in white ball cricket.