Ben Stokes warned his players there can be no excuses about a lack of intensity in Wednesday’s landmark first Test against West Indies, with England poised to leave Stuart Broad out of their XI and opt for more pace.
The series opener in Southampton represents the return of Test cricket after more than four months and follows a huge operation by the England and Wales Cricket Board to get international games staged behind closed doors in biosecure conditions.
The stringent measures in place for both sides, which include regular Covid-19 testing and a ban on applying saliva to the ball, may not be the only marked difference on the day, with Broad expected to make way for Mark Wood.
Broad, 34, is England’s leading wicket-taker over the last 12 months, a veteran of 138 caps and has not missed a home Test since 2012. But Stokes, the captain due to Joe Root’s paternity leave, and the head coach Chris Silverwood want to see Wood in tandem with a fellow quick, Jofra Archer, while Jimmy Anderson also returns to take the new ball.
Stokes, who will name his final XI on Wednesday morning, admitted planning towards the 2021-22 Ashes is now a factor in selection. The jam-packed summer schedule means Broad and Chris Woakes, the other seamer likely to miss out, will not be mixing the drinks for long but it would nevertheless be a watershed moment.
“This is a massive occasion for a lot of people around the country,” said Stokes, who becomes the 81st man to lead England in Test cricket and confirmed that the two teams will perform a “gesture” in support of Black Lives Matter before the match – expected to be a collective taking of the knee.
“We know we have that responsibility on our shoulders to go out and do justice for all those people. We can’t use [the lack of a crowd] as an excuse to not feel up for this game because we know we have hundreds of thousands of people following us and wanting us to do well.”
While Anderson and Archer are technically the bowlers returning to the side – both saw their winter tours of South Africa ended early by injury – it would be strong show of faith in Wood, who claimed nine victims in his previous Test in Johannesburg and a maiden five-wicket haul when England last met West Indies in St Lucia in 2019.
Stokes said: “I have been dreading it, in the last three days, having to deliver bad news to some lads. It’s not a nice thing to be able to do but that comes with being the captain. It’s got to be done.”
Asked about Wood, his previously injury-plagued Durham teammate, Stokes replied: “The transformation, from a mental side, has been phenomenal. He’s had troubles in the past with injuries and, from a close friend’s point of view, I’m so excited with where he is at with everything.
“All the worries he would have had about his body two or three years ago seem to have disappeared. And the skills he possesses are very rare to have in a bowler.
“I feel as if we are in a position now with the Test team like we were with the one-day side in 2015 when we started building for the  World Cup. We are building for the Ashes in Australia and India [next winter]. To have the crop of fast-bowlers we now possess is a great place to be as a Test side.”
Stokes revealed that Root had left a message on the coat-hanger of his captain’s blazer that simply read “do it your way” and went on to give a typically bullish reply in the media conference when asked about the future of Test cricket, saying its extinction would be “a disaster” but “it is not going anywhere”.
On the Black Lives Matter movement, logos for which will be also worn on the collars of both teams, Stokes insisted it was not an endorsement of the UK political campaign of the same name, but rather the broader global message.
He added: “Not only have we used this period to build ourselves up for a Test series, but also a chance to educate one another about Black Lives Matter. Mark Saxby, our masseur, has been a real leader in that. What we need to do is get the message about equality in society and sport around the whole world. We have a massive opportunity to do something really powerful.”