Alan Hubbard

I have no idea whether Tyson Fury and Ben Stokes are bosom buddies or have even met. But they would certainly be able to compare notes being two of a kind, both having survived earlier chequered careers to become national icons now at the top of their respective games.

Fury, the giant "Gypsy King" who became a pugilistic pariah by voicing opinions that were less than savoury, has driven himself out of the wilderness to reign as the most authoritative heavyweight champion of the world, winning the prestigious World Boxing Council (WBC) title and becoming even more popular than his rival, the multi-belted former Olympic champion Anthony Joshua.

Stokes, with a history of much publicised peccadilloes has redeemed himself sufficiently to become a hero with virtuoso performances with bat and ball on the cricket field which were instrumental in England winning the World Cup.

Both now await their finite coronations in sports that have broken out of lockdown to appease public appetites for live action. Fury awaits the go-ahead for his contracted return contest against Deontay Wilder and then the ultimate unification showdown with Joshua.

Meanwhile Stokes becomes England cricket captain - at least for one match in the absence of Joe Root on paternity leave - leading the side against the West Indies at Southampton when the sport, if only at Test level, returns to the crease tomorrow.

Ben Stokes is due to captain England during their test with the West Indies this week ©Getty Images
Ben Stokes is due to captain England during their test with the West Indies this week ©Getty Images

It will not be the only Test that Stokes has faced - like the rest of his team he has had several of them to determine he is coronavirus-free before the umpires call play.

The start of this three-match Test series is another welcome breakthrough for sport in this troubled year, but I doubt I am alone in wondering why it has taken so long for the Government to realise that here is the perfect game to overcome the Covid-19 blues. Yet they continue to keep it in the pavilion as far as county and club matches are concerned, despite it being obvious that this is the team sport which most lends itself to being safe in the world if new normal.

It already meets the most compelling restriction of social distancing. It is rare to see players within one metre-plus of each other on the cricket field, even when fielding in the slips. Anyway, standing at silly mid-on less than a metre away when Stokes is batting would be foolhardy, if not suicidal.

Several new regulations have been imposed before the teams take the field at Hampshire’s Ageas Bowl tomorrow morning.

Indeed, like football and now boxingm which is back on the box via BT Sport this Friday (July 10) evening with a British title fight, everyone involved has had to observe stringent procedures to meet health and safety regulations.

Some are self- evident, like regular testing for the virus. England and West Indies teams and backroom staff have had to self isolate in "bio-secure bubbles" at their respective hotels for two weeks.

Players from England and the West Indies had to isolate before the Test match in Southampton ©Getty Images
Players from England and the West Indies had to isolate before the Test match in Southampton ©Getty Images

There will be no traditional exchange of team sheets between captains and only the match referee and captains will be present at the toss, which will take place 30 minutes before the start. There will not be any handshakes before the game and no umpires will be brought in from overseas.

Then there is the question of the balls. Bowlers may apply sweat to help keep the shine and swing but no saliva. A case of no spit but plenty of polish! In the present cool climate bowlers many need to keep their thickest sweaters on to work up the necessary perspiration.

Repeated infringements of the no-saliva rule can lead to five runs being added to the opposing team’s final score.

If shot into the crowd-free stands the ball must be retrieved by a player. No one else should touch it.

The time taken between change of innings may be longer than ten minutes due to social distancing rules relating to the ground staff, who must maintain a distance of 20 metres where possible from the players.

Sky Sports, who will televise the series, are likely to provide low-level crowd noise for the ball by ball coverage from commentators who will socially distance from each other in the press box.

Additionally players will have received a letter requiring them to refrain from "sledging" - verbal abuse of opposing players - as improper language is likely to be picked up by microphones and fed to the television audience. The International Cricket Council will be among those monitoring events and any offending player could be fined or banned. Officials from both sides have emphasised to their players that they must mind their language.

Cricket is among the sports to have been impacted by the COVID-19 crisis ©Getty Images
Cricket is among the sports to have been impacted by the COVID-19 crisis ©Getty Images

Some aficionados may complain that "it’s not cricket" in these testing conditions but I doubt the viewing public will complain. Many players will be well experienced in playing in grounds that are more or less empty during County Championship matches. 

While the West Indies may no longer be the force they once were in the heady days of Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine, Gary Sobers, Viv Richards, Clive Lloyd and Michael Holding but, they are still immensely entertaining, As we anticipate will be England under the captaincy of Stokes, the first player from county side Durham to lead his country.

One word of warning though. England’s record under swashbuckling skippers such as Ian Botham and Andrew Flintoff is not overwhelming. All-rounder Stokes is of that lets-go-for-it ilk, so in every sense it is a testing time for him, especially as his personal record against the Windies, like his former off-field persona, is somewhat chequered. 

It was in Barbados in 2014 that he punched a dressing room locker in frustration after getting out for a golden duck, the resultant broken hand putting him out of the subsequent World Twenty20. It was after playing against them in Bristol that he went on the late night binge which resulted in him serving him a lengthy playing suspension and an appearance in court. He also does not have an outstanding batting record against the West Indies pacemen.

It also happens that the West Indies reckon they have an even better all-rounder than Stokes in their own captain, Jason Holder, who occupies the number one spot in the Test all-rounder rankings with Stokes at number two. Holder has led his side in Tests since 2015 and his double century at Lord’s in January 2019 was instrumental in giving his side ascendancy over England in the previous series between them.

However one former England captain, Nasser Hussain, is confident that the temporary captaincy will bring out the best in Stokes and give England the edge. "It is unfair to say just because Botham and Flintoff didn’t do it, Stokes won’t," he said. "I would just worry about his workload if he ever became full-time captain. The England captaincy always wears people down.

"A one-off Test is fine. Ben has a fantastic cricket brain and he will be attacking and smart. It will be obvious who is in charge."

So, the smart money is on Ben stoking the fire for England. No sweat.