The eyes of the cricketing world will be focused on Southampton today when England take on the West Indies at the Ageas Bowl in what will be the first international cricket series since the outbreak of coronavirus pandemic more than three months ago. The Test match, the first of three during the Windies' tour of England, will go a long way to showing other nations how to host an international series even amidst the pandemic. With football already leading the way in terms of getting sport back on the field, it is cricket's turn to follow suit and set the tone.
Whether it is James Anderson or Kemar Roach who comes in to bowl with the new ball, they will all be acutely aware of the ways of the 'new normal', given that it is very much the absence of normal that dictates circumstances.
For instance, none of the bowlers will get to hand over their caps, towels, sunglasses or sweaters to the umpire like they used to. The ICC guidelines called for 'adopting a process that will assist the bowler in managing his/her items. Umpires may also be encouraged to use gloves when handling the ball.'
Social distancing will have to work on the field of play too and even though cricket is a non-contact sport, there will not be those team huddles while awaiting an umpire's decision or high fives, fist-bump or approaching your key bowler who has just got a prized scalp and hugging it out.
Then there is the hotly-debated saliva ban that is giving faster bowlers sleepless nights. Will the ball swing for them after a few overs go by? Conditions in England are conducive to seam bowling but will sweat be enough to clean up the ball? Such questions will be on the minds of the faster bowlers in both camps and, until they play a real match, it is difficult to know exactly how to make this 'new normal' work.
Both teams and staff have been in a bio-secure 'bubble' for the past few weeks and West Indies coach Phil Simmons found out the hard way how stringent the restrictions facing them are. Simmons had attended his father-in-law's funeral before completing a week-long self-isolation at a hotel room. Yet, there were calls for him to be sacked, with one Windies director saying it was 'inconsiderate and reckless'.
England pacer Mark Wood had said that all of it felt like being inside a sci-fi movie. Essentially, the players had been cut off from the rest of the world. There will be aggressive coronavirus testing along with colour-coded testing sites demarcated for various groups.
"It's a mental game. While on tour, you would want to switch off from cricket for some time. You may want to go for a coffee or to a mall. It's not possible now. It's a bit of a challenge and it's harder for the players. It is tough. But we have to get used to it as coronavirus is going to stay for some time now," Roach was quoted as saying by the Hindustan Times. For England, they have to do without the famous Barmy Army. Roach felt the absence too. "Some music will be good, maybe get somebody who can sing!"