England Test captain Joe Root. — AFP Photo
LONDON — England will hope the return of captain Joe Root proves inspirational in the second Test against the West Indies at Old Trafford starting on Thursday.
Star batsman Root missed England's four-wicket defeat at Southampton in international cricket's return from lockdown last week after attending the birth of his second child.
He has now rejoined the squad, with West Indies needing just one win from the two remaining Tests of the campaign at Old Trafford to clinch a first series win in England for 32 years.
Although all three fixtures are being played behind closed doors because of the coronavirus outbreak, Root will be in a familiar situation.
England have now lost the opening match of a series for the eighth time in ten campaigns, a run dating back to the 2017/18 Ashes in Australia.
Most recently in South Africa they did recover from a heavy defeat in the first Test to win that series 3-1.
But now at 1-0 down with just two to play, there is far less margin for error.
Joe Denly appears to be the most likely candidate to make way for Root.
Denly was twice out cheaply at Southampton, with fellow batsman Zak Crawley making 76 in a second innings where England's loss of five wickets for 30 runs proved more pivotal to the result than their controversial decision to omit veteran paceman Stuart Broad.
"We're all desperate to see Joe do really well," said England coach Chris Silverwood. "But obviously he's under pressure a little bit."
"Zak is improving constantly. I think he certainly showed maturity and the innings he played was very good."
England wicketkeeper Jos Buttler dropped Jermaine Blackwood early in the West Indies' batsman's match-clinching innings of 95 on Sunday's final day at Southampton.
And another pair of low scores left Buttler with a Test average of just 23.22 since the start of 2019 and now only one hundred in 75 innings.
But even though England have gifted gloveman Ben Foakes waiting in the wings, Silverwood said: "First and foremost we want to give Jos the best opportunity to succeed.
"He just needs to go and make those big scores now doesn't he? He knows that as well."
Meanwhile, with six Tests in seven weeks, including three against Pakistan, England could yet recall Broad in Manchester, having already said they plan to rotate their battery of quicks.
It was West Indies fast bowler Shannon Gabriel, however, who was named man-of-the-match in the first Test for a nine-wicket haul.
Gabriel was only included in the main squad after being named as a travelling reserve following ankle surgery.
Given the second Test starts just days after the end of the first, fitness is likely to be the West Indies' biggest issue as they return to Old Trafford, the venue for their quarantine period amid the pandemic and two subsequent intra-squad warm-up matches.
The West Indies arrived in England with many doubting if their batsmen could give an impressive fast-bowling unit enough runs to play with.
But they built a first-innings lead of over a hundred runs at Southampton after captain Jason Holder took a Test-best 6-42 in England's lowly 204.
Set 200 to win, the West Indies did then collapse to 27-3 and saw opener John Campbell retire hurt.
But Blackwood stepped up, even if the rashness that has characterised his stop-start West Indies career saw him fall five runs short of what would have been only his second Test century when he tried to hit over the top.
By then, despite some taunts from stand-in England captain Ben Stokes, Blackwood had all but sealed victory.
"I wasn't really paying too much attention to that, I was keen on getting the runs and getting my team across the line," Blackwood said on Tuesday of Stokes' words.
"That didn't faze me at any point in time.
"Once I'm at the crease, they're the ones under pressure, not me." — AFP