Grey clouds and sporadic gusts of rain hovered over Old Trafford on the eve of the Test. The covers were permanently on and the West Indies players in full tracksuits, bobble hats and the odd umbrella were ambling across the playing surface, drifting slowly from their place of practice back to their hotel rooms. It was a bleak, unworldly sight and a reminder of the sacrifices the players are making to deliver this series. It looks much more normal when switching on the TV at 10.55am.
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There is much to play for: the Wisden Trophy is at stake and the hope of climbing up the Test table that has been so disrupted by the pandemic. The game matters but it is likely to be messy. The forecast for the weekend is poor. There will be delays, countless recalculations and stretched tempers. But we also know that it takes a lot of rain and long interruptions to guarantee a draw in the modern game. This is a consequence of an improvement in drainage and a deterioration in defensive techniques, both of which make for livelier games.
England have to win to recapture the trophy and they have some tricky decisions to make before the toss on Friday, which should be one of the drier days. This time a squad of 14 players has been announced. The idea is that all options are covered; if someone pulls a muscle on the 100-yard walk between their bedroom and the dressing room, a reserve should be in place. Therefore it is odd that there are six pacemen plus Ben Stokes in the squad and just one spinner, Dom Bess.
They have decided Bess should continue as the specialist spinner ahead of Jack Leach; in this department they speak of pecking orders rather than rotation. However, it is a struggle to decide which combination of pace bowlers should be chosen by Joe Root and Chris Silverwood on the morning of the match. There are complications. There always are and they usually revolve around the same people. Captains and selectors spend 90% of the time talking about 10% of the players.
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In this case the players are Stokes and Jofra Archer, the former because he is so vital and he is still struggling for full fitness, the latter because it is hard to gauge his state of mind. Read an article in the Mail, which his captain apparently hasn’t, and Archer queries whether he is in the right frame of mind to play in a Test. Listen to Root at his press conference and he is confident that Archer is ready and smiling again.
Stokes will play come what may; he is undoubtedly fit to bat but not necessarily to bowl. So England could be a batsman or a bowler light in a match where they must take 20 wickets. If a batsman is omitted – either Zak Crawley or Ollie Pope – there would be the impetus to retain at least one of Chris Woakes and Sam Curran or possibly both in the final XI to bolster the lower middle-order.
If they decide to keep the same top six they could opt to play three pacemen plus Bess or just conceivably four pacemen and no Bess with Joe Root delivering some makeshift off-spin. Ponder these options and there is a vivid reminder why England are so fortunate to have Stokes around to balance the team when fully fit. In decent weather no sane captain would contemplate ditching their specialist spinner; the oddity of the last match here was that the ball spun on the first day but not so much thereafter.
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Silverwood has committed to playing his best team, which does not clarify that much since we no longer know what it is. Taking the long view, playing Archer is a good idea so that he is back in the fold and enjoying his cricket again rather than penning newspaper articles and poring over comments on social media. Do they play Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson, neither of whom can now be categorised as mid-innings workhorses? For all the talk of good headaches that is a decision likely to keep the most laid-back of captains awake at night.
Meanwhile, West Indies are gallantly hanging on. Privately, but not publicly, they may not be too bothered if Manchester lived up to its damp reputation. They have a much clearer idea of what constitutes their best team partly because they do not have so many bowling options. One problem for Jason Holder is that his preferred bowlers are starting to creak.
Alzarri Joseph had trouble with his triceps while Shannon Gabriel could barely move in the field between spells, though when he was summoned to bowl he still managed to generate impressive pace. The poor weather forecast does not enhance the likelihood of Rahkeem Cornwall the off-spinner, playing his first game, which is a pity.
They may consider dropping John Campbell, the opening batsman who had a poor second Test. But in the special circumstances of this series any batsman who has been out of the team from the start will find it tough to be in charge of his game if suddenly selected having spent the past three weeks running around the boundary in a bib. So Campbell might survive.