West Indies have selflessly answered the SOS call from English cricket and will fly out to the UK next week despite three players opting out of the trip because of concerns about the Covid-19 pandemic.
Darren Bravo, Shimron Hetmyer and Keemo Paul all featured in the 2-1 victory against England at home last year and were invited to join the three-Test tour that is being staged behind closed doors from 8 July by the selector Roger Harper.
Their names were absent from the 25-member touring party announced on Wednesday – a Test squad of 14, plus 11 reserve players who will act as net bowlers and warm-up opposition – with a statement from Cricket West Indies saying the board “fully respects their decision”.
Johnny Grave, the chief executive, had stressed recently that the death toll from coronavirus in the UK – now officially past 50,000 – needed to be viewed from a Caribbean perspective, a sentiment echoed by Joe Root, the England Test captain, who said this week that “it must be extremely scary”.
Accordingly all three players have been told there will be no recriminations as regards future selection. With West Indies cricketers starting a 50% pay cut from July – but the tour offering full match fees worth around £15,000 in total for those among the official 14 – it is clear their decisions were not taken lightly.
Bravo, the Trinidadian left-hander with 54 caps and eight centuries, is a loss by way of experience even though he had been dropped for their most recent Test against Afghanistan, while the Guayanese pair of Hetmyer, an explosive middle-order player, and Paul, a bowling all-rounder, are considered emerging talents.
The trio could not be persuaded by a final medical briefing from Nick Peirce, the England and Wales Cricket Board’s chief medical officer, on Monday evening but there will be few grumbles from the home side about the standard of opposition overall given the desperation to stage international cricket this summer.
The ECB is looking to recoup as much of the £220m-per-year broadcast deal as possible, something demonstrated by the lengths it is going to get West Indies over first and demonstrate to Pakistan, Ireland and Australia – all due to visit this summer – that the plan for biosecure matches works.
Jason Holder’s touring side will assemble in Antigua in the coming days and, once coronavirus test results are returned from a private laboratory in Florida, depart for the UK on Monday evening. These charter flights, both inter-island and transatlantic, are being paid for by the ECB, as well as tour fees for the reserves.
Upon arrival West Indies will head to Old Trafford to spend three weeks living at the Hilton hotel on site and training among themselves – the first 14 days of which are considered a quarantine period – before the squad then decamp to the Ageas Bowl before the first Test.
The series opener and the two remaining Tests back in Manchester, from 16 and 24 July respectively, will be staged without crowds and only around 200 people in the grounds. The two squads, their coaching staffs and the match officials will be subject to a rigorous testing regime, as well as daily temperature checks and thermal screening.
England will start as favourites to regain the Wisden Trophy but West Indies, while without a series win in the UK since 1988, have a much-respected captain in Holder and depth in the bowling department given Shannon Gabriel and Oshane Thomas, two hostile quicks, are listed among the reserves.
Gabriel’s relegation to the bench is in part because of uncertainty over his fitness following ankle surgery last November. But Chemar Holder, an uncapped 22-year-old Barbadian who has taken his place in the main squad, is considered a rising star in the Caribbean and is expected to enjoy English conditions.