Test cricket's back! Just still with cloudy future...

The Ageas Bowl in Southampton.
The Ageas Bowl in Southampton.
  • England host West Indies from next Wednesday to break the ice on a lengthy absence of Test cricket.
  • The once imperious Caribbean side have lost all of their last five series on English soil, but won at home in 2018-19.
  • South Africa's own return to the format remains mired in uncertainty... and a worryingly low ration anyway.

There will be some irony in Test cricket making its gratifying return for purists in a crowd-free, bio-secure environment at the Rose Bowl from next Wednesday.

When England tackle West Indies in the first of three encounters at the Southampton venue, it will be with the knowledge that English audiences remain among the staunchest attendees for the format... although they will be curtailed to television (or under-rated radio) coverage for the time being due to the ongoing coronavirus restrictions.

While live fare there will still be limited to pay channel Sky (the series is on SuperSport in South Africa, noon start our time daily), the BBC will be offering nightly highlights packages for the first time in some two decades, potentially coaxing back some fresh UK support to the often embattled format.

The resumption of hostilities at five-day level will come after a forced lull stretching back to late February/early March, when New Zealand whipped a surprisingly disappointing Indian touring side by seven wickets in the second of two Tests in Christchurch for a 2-0 series outcome.

Several intended, subsequent series have either been postponed already, or likely to be confirmed as such shortly.

An empty-stadium landscape for Test cricket – a hallmark we may have to get used to for weeks or even months, and probably varying according to host country – somehow seems less damaging to the overall entertainment package than would be the case for, say, major rugby or football.

Many Test-playing nations, sadly, play before negligible crowds a lot of the time, and as you get toward days four or five of clashes even in well-supported countries, crowds (often post-weekend by then) have sometimes dwindled to handfuls anyway – even if an enthralling climax may be on the cards.

But the format remains a popular enough television drawcard, and liked by broadcasters because of the lengthy guaranteed "live time" involved, weather permitting.

England remain very much one of the more heavyweight Test nations, so their presence alone from next week brings worldwide interest among aficionados – they enter it having last come off a 3-1 away beating of South Africa in the southern-hemisphere summer – even if their once mighty opponents have been largely in the doldrums at this level for two or three decades.

Just seeing a saturated period of seemingly guaranteed Test play (Pakistan quickly follow up West Indies in England with three Tests of their own there) will be reassuring to all devotees... a durable, calm-tempo relief, perhaps, from the ongoing multi-pronged stresses and heartache caused by Covid-19.

The host nation will be reasonably firm favourites to beat the Caribbean outfit, who remain a lowly eighth (to England's current fourth) on the ICC men's Test rankings.

That said, the home faithful will retain painful memories of the last series between them on West Indian soil in 2018-19, when England lost both of the first two encounters in a three-Test series (Bridgetown and North Sound respectively) for a 2-1 outcome in favour of Jason Holder's charges.

But the modern West Indies have a fairly wretched record in England's near-unique conditions, with defeat in each of the last five series there for the Wisden Trophy.

Mike Atherton and Richie Richardson were the respective captains in distant 1995, when the tourists earned a well-contested 2-2 outcome.

While both will put out aggressive, penetrative pace attacks, England's batting line-up is not significantly less fragile in many respects than that of their looming opponents, and they have the additional impediment for the first Test of going in without their captain and stalwart source of runs Joe Root, who has to self-isolate due to his wife giving birth shortly.

Firebrand all-rounder Ben Stokes will fill Root's leadership shoes for the first time.

Proteas Test fans will look on with some envy over the next few weeks of England's delayed season, mindful that their team could face an altogether lengthier wait to get back on the park.

Already their mid-winter, two-Test tour of the Caribbean has been pushed back indefinitely, leaving a reasonable likelihood that the next activity in the long-form game will only come with Sri Lanka's (again short, mere two-Test) intended tour here over the festive season in December.

As it is, South Africa have not played Tests in the West Indies since as ridiculously long ago as 2010, just another indicator of how the format has been quietly, gradually marginalised in recent years in this country and several others.

Most Test series that will be able to take place over the next few months remain under the banner – lest we forget – of the controversial new ICC World Test Championship, supposedly designed to bring greater context to series and enliven a format increasingly threatened by the mass encroachment of white-ball fare.

A once-off, first-cycle "final" in the dubiously-structured tournament (which it is probably safe to say was earning less than prolific street-corner talk even before the huge disruption of the pandemic) is still earmarked for Lord's in the middle of next year, although it looks increasingly unlikely to take place then, given the present pile-up of unplayed fixtures.

India and Australia, in that order, currently sport very tidy leads on its overall table which has an eccentric, unbalanced look and feel.

At the end of the day, Test connoisseurs may simply choose to do what they have largely always done: judge each individual series and outcome on its merits.

And simply be happy to see Test cricket and its time-honoured tapestry of qualities at all...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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