England's upcoming series against the West Indies is gently approaching, with the first Test kicking off on the 23rd January. Many fans of cricket worldwide view series against the Windies as an anticlimactic contest against a team that are continually one of the weaker Test sides, but for England, this series is an important opportunity for them to consolidate after an exceptional away victory in Sri Lanka. With a World Cup looming, it will be England’s last chance to prepare for an Ashes series this summer.
Besides the 3 matches in the West Indies, England’s only other Test match prior to the Ashes will be against Ireland, which also fails to provide a difficult challenge ahead of Australia. This team has shown signs of real promise in the past year and looks to be shaping up into a settled side going into what should be a tightly contested Ashes series, but there are still issues to be ironed out in the West Indies.
The lead up to the famous 2005 Ashes series provides the perfect example of how a team can build towards an Ashes series, following a convincing 4-0 win against the West Indies in 2004 with a superb series win in South Africa against a strong side. So far, England have beaten a very strong Indian side 4-1 and have shown their progress with the recent Sri Lankan success. But losing in the West Indies would sow new doubts about team selection and kill confidence with very little time to adjust before Australia arrive. England are unlikely to bring in any new faces straight into an Ashes series, and that only exacerbates the need for England to perform well in the Caribbean.
As is routine for England, the top 3 are the main focus. While Jennings had a good series in Sri Lanka his ability against pace is still doubted, and Burns showed signs of promise without much substance. With limited championship cricket in early season, both are likely to start the first test against Australia, but it is vital they head in with confidence against a strong pace attack. It will be a good opportunity for them to score runs against a weak West Indies attack, and they must capitalise and take some form into the summer.
The main question still remains at number 3 with Jonny Bairstow. Yes, he scored a century at number 3 in his first innings in the position, but his measly average of 30.45 in 2018 and 34.32 in 2017 mean his viability as a long-term solution at number 3 are still questionable. If he is to really cement his place and give England confidence going forward, he must do so in the West Indies by batting sensibly and embracing his extra responsibility. While his century in Sri Lanka showed plenty of promise at 3, his ugly swipe across the line to get out illustrated exactly the areas he needs to focus on to make that position his own. 100 and out may be a match-winning knock at 7, but not so at 3 and Bairstow must show he can bat long for the team.
Australia’s home loss to India illustrates the problems they have of their own, but with Smith and Warner to return before the Ashes England must remain focused and continue their development into what could be a world class team. Whether West Indies will provide a big challenge is yet to be seen, but England can only face what’s put in front of them with the clock ticking to another Ashes series.