Biosecure bubbles have been a draining but necessary sacrifice for England’s top cricketers this summer. Some of the hardier members of the men's national side endured almost 90 days of it in all, isolated from families and friends.
England's women are already weeks into their own bubble - they have been based in Derby - but it is not simply the claustrophobia of lockdown that they have had to contend with.
Covid-19 has thrown the women's game into chaos. First, next February’s Women’s World Cup, set to be played in New Zealand, was cancelled by the ICC, the day before the country announced it had gone 100 days without a domestic virus case. Then India, a broadcasting powerhouse, pulled out of their England tour. And finally South Africa, adamant that they would not follow suit, did so too, right at the last moment.
This at a time when England’s men found themselves on course to, miraculously, complete a full summer of international cricket. And the men’s IPL, India’s showpiece tournament, was given the green light to be staged in the UAE come-what-may. Women’s cricket, by contrast, had vanished.
England’s women faced the real prospect of a summer without a single international fixture, and a future void of anything to work towards. The T20 World Cup final, played in front of more than 86,000 at the MCG in March, with so much hope for the future of women’s sport, seemed an awfully long time ago.
"It was tough, to be honest," said England’s captain, Heather Knight. "We were in our first training bubble in Derby and within [the space of] two days we found out that the World Cup was cancelled and South Africa had pulled out. So, it wasn’t a great few days."
However, just as it was the West Indies who stepped up first for the men, it is the West Indies again who are ensuring that England’s women have an international autumn at the very least.
"We’re all just really excited and very grateful to the West Indies for filling the void," said Knight. "I think it was a 10-day turnaround to get them locked in to come over. I probably didn’t believe it until they landed, so we’re obviously massively grateful to them and to their board and to the ECB for making it all happen."
The West Indies are recent visitors, too. Before England were crushed by Australia in the Ashes last August, England hammered 989 runs to the West Indies’ 466 across three ODIs and one T20I (two others were rained off) in a white-ball series whitewash.
It is a smart move to schedule only T20Is. The West Indies’ ODI form is somewhat leaner; the last time they won an ODI in England was 41 years ago. Even in T20Is they have struggled recently, the crown having slipped since their thrilling 2016 World T20 triumph. In this year’s tournament they failed to make it out of the group stages.
England’s desperate search for an opponent, any opponent, therefore reminds of us of another growing concern in world cricket. There is a widening gap between the funding, infrastructure and appetite for women’s cricket in the likes of Australia and England and, well, anywhere else.
It is a concern that Knight doesn’t brush off lightly. "I think now is the real time for the ICC to step up and support countries to get women’s cricket on," said Knight, matter-of-factly. "It’s a huge boost to get us back playing but we want people to play against and we want high competition throughout world cricket.
“You just hope the boards do take women’s cricket seriously and put it on. We knew the ECB were going to do everything in their power to get some cricket on and they’ve done exactly what they would have done for the guys, which is real progress. I don’t think that would have happened three or four years ago.”
So, here we are. England have provided the financial necessities and a biosecure bubble, the West Indies an opposition and a willingness to travel to a country far more burdened with coronavirus from whence they have come. And Knight, as with her West Indies counterpart, Stafanie Taylor, understands the wider significance of this series too. Unlike England’s men, who have stopped taking the knee in their recent fixtures, Knight’s team intend to do so. Both teams will be wearing the the Black Lives Matter logo on their shirts.
In the all-rounders Deandra Dottin, Stafanie Taylor and Hayley Matthews, the tourists have the quality and clout to turn the West Indies’ flashes of brilliance into something more consistent. They’ll have to, if they want to get a game off England. Under Knight’s leadership and with a fresh coach in Lisa Keightley, the hosts had appeared to be just about getting going as a new side before rain washed out their last match, the T20 World Cup semi final against India, alongside their trophy hopes. If Natalie Sciver can continue her form with the bat in that tournament and Sophie Ecclestone’s development as the talented, intelligent spinner she is motors on, England will be expecting nothing less than a repeat of last year’s results against the West Indies.
England (likely): D Wyatt. T Beaumont, N Sciver, H Knight, S Dunkley, A Jones, K Brunt, A Shrubsole, S Ecclestone, K George, S Glenn.