A major opportunity beckons for the West Indies.
The eyes of the cricketing world will be fixed on the Ageas Bowl on Wednesday as Jason Holder’s men finally take on England.
The fixture – the first of a rescheduled three-match series with the Wisden Trophy at stake – will be like no other in the history of the game.
For a starter, the stands will be empty. But while the most obvious, it’s far from the only difference as cricket goes bio-secure.
Players are living at the ground in the run-up to and during the Test, while in-game acts like using saliva to shine the ball will be strictly prohibited.
The first top-level international cricket to take place since an ODI between Australia and New Zealand in March will have an alien look, but it promises to be an enthralling battle.
With home advantage and a superior ranking, England enter as favourites.
Bowling is their strong suit. Masters of swing and seam James Anderson and Stuart Broad have a whopping 1069 Test wickets between them, while Jofra Archer and Mark Wood possess the kind of raw pace capable of ripping through any opposition in double-quick time.
2019 BBC Sports Personality of the Year Ben Stokes – who will stand in as skipper for the first match – provides additional threat with the ball and is temporarily the headline act in the batting lineup, while young Ollie Pope looks the real deal alongside him in the middle order.
However, while England sit four ahead of eighth-placed Windies in the rankings, this is no foregone conclusion.
Recently reinstated WI Head Coach, Phil Simmons, has his own outstanding quartet of quicks to call upon.
It’s quite possible that Kemar Roach still haunts the dreams of several of England’s left-handers after he wreaked havoc in the most recent bilateral series between these sides in the Caribbean in early 2019.
English conditions suit the tall, accurate and skilful Holder – the current number one ranked all-rounder in the world – and while more mercurial, Shannon Gabriel and Alzarri Joseph possess enough pace to trouble even the most set of batsmen.
Crucially, all four will be able to draw upon the experience of having toured England once before, three years ago.
For all the potency of their attack, consistent run-scoring has proved problematic for a Windies batting group which has often failed to pull its weight.
Shai Hope is a world-class ODI player and is as easy on the eye as any when in full flow but aside from his record-breaking back-to-back hundreds at Headingly in 2017, he has struggled in the Test arena.
Of the players likely to occupy the top eight slots in the tourists’ batting line-up, all bar opener John Campbell have at least one Test ton to their name, yet none can boast a career average in excess of 35.
There’s little doubt the experience of Darren Bravo – who opted out of the tour alongside Shimron Hetmyer and Keemo Paul – will be missed.
England have frailties of their own, though. With captain and best batsman Joe Root missing the opening Test to attend the birth of his second child, the hosts’ top four lacks experience and star quality.
Rory Burns is returning from a long injury absence, while Messrs Sibley, Crawley and Denly all still have plenty to prove. Jos Buttler will take to the field in Southampton as vice-captain but after recording just three 50+ scores last year, he too is a man under pressure.
Given the quality possessed by both bowling attacks, this series could come down to which side can muster the most resistance with the bat.
For decades, Windies squads have faced constant negative comparisons to the region’s outstanding teams of yesteryear.
It would be inaccurate to suggest that the current crop has the potential to eventually dominate the world game as their predecessors did. But ahead of one of the most hotly anticipated series in recent memory, they have a big opportunity to topple a vulnerable giant in their own backyard and to prove that once again, they are a force to be reckoned with in the longest format.
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