England vs Windies, 1st Test
Batting the key for both sides as Test cricket set for return
The batting units of England and West Indies could decide who emerges victorious as the two sides prepare for the first Test of a three-match series set to begin at Southampton today (Wednesday).
Both sides have proven pace bowling attacks. All-rounder and West Indies captain Jason Holder will spearhead a bowling unit which includes the likes of Shannon Gabriel, Kemar Roach and Alzarri Joseph.
England too has plenty of pace bowling options. Veteran new-ball duo James Anderson and Stuart Broad remain threats in the longest format due to their ability to generate movement, whereas Barbados-born Jofra Archer and Mark Wood bring raw pace and bounce.
Dom Bess is the lone spinner in the home side's 13-man squad for the Test, meaning their main focus will be on figuring out the composition of the pace bowling line-up.
However, the biggest concern for both sides will be whether or not their respective batting line-ups will be able to put enough runs on the board to give the bowlers something to bowl at.
England will be without the services of skipper Joe Root for the first Test, who is with his wife as the couples are expecting their second child.
All-rounder Ben Stokes will lead the side in his absence. However, whether or not the top-order can cope without his presence is another matter altogether.
Joe Denly, who has a modest average of 30 from 14 Tests, will most likely play and has the backing of the selection committee.
"As a top-order batter Joe would obviously love to convert those starts into hundreds... but also it is fully understood that he has contributed to good team batting performances," said England national selector Ed Smith.
West Indies will be without the services of Shimron Hetmyer and Darren Bravo, who opted out of the tour due to personal reasons surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic.
To make matters worse, a likely top-five of Kraigg Brathwaite, John Campbell, Shamarh Brooks, Shai Hope and Roston Chase collapsed to 49-5 in their final intra-squad warm-up innings at Old Trafford.
"I would have loved to see the batsmen spend a little bit more time in the middle," said West Indies assistant coach Roddy Estwick.
West Indies will likely start the first Test with Holder, Gabriel, Roach and Joseph as the pace-bowling options with Rahkeem Cornwall playing as the lone spinner.
Injuries have prevented England pairing the express Archer and Wood together since the former's Test debut last year. But if they are both in the final XI on Wednesday, it could mean Broad missing a first home Test in eight years.
With matches coming thick and fast - the three-match series will be over before the end of the month - England may decide to hold Wood back for the second and third Tests at Old Trafford.
The pitch at Lancashire's headquarters traditionally has more bounce than the one at Southampton - a consideration that is even more important given the temporary ban on bowlers using saliva in order to combat the spread of Covid-19.