It has been a remarkable and at times emotional week in the bubble, one that – after a four-month wait – has reminded us just how ruddy glorious Test cricket can be.
A sporting boxset consumed over five days, like all good dramas it saved the best for the final episode as at 5.53pm West Indies fulfilled the sense of destiny they have carried with them all match in wrapping up a famous four-wicket victory.
Jason Holder, non-striker when the injured John Campbell nudged a calm single into the leg side, let out a cathartic roar and punched the air. With no crowd to applaud it was a weirdly sterile moment but, given the magnitude of the win and the journey it had taken to reach this point, it was somehow no less sweet.
We have seen international sport return as a stripped back and refurbished as a fully made-for-broadcast product, played out to empty stands and near-silence. A team has been flown over from the relative safety of the Caribbean into one of the pandemic’s hotspots and gone into isolation while the outside world emerges from lockdown.
There have been throats swabbed, temperatures scanned, hands sanitised and masks worn. A two-metre distance has been observed wherever possible in a cricket ground-cum-hotel that needed dividing up into strictly-enforced zones and one-way systems to break potential routes of transmission for Covid-19.
We have watched players on both sides take a knee for the Black Lives Matter movement – West Indies donning black gloves to nudge minds back to the 1968 Olympics – and we have heard powerful testimony on this subject from Michael Holding and Ebony Rainford-Brent that has then circulated around the world.
There have been not one but two box-office captain all-rounders on show, straining every sinew in pursuit of the win, and they have captivated us with their personal duel along the way too. Holder may have edged this, claiming seven wickets across the match including Ben Stokes twice, but both reminded us why they are champions.
Shannon Gabriel has turned Duke ball into wrecking ball, shattering the stumps five times en route to nine wickets in the match, with Jofra Archer returning significant fire on the final day. Mark Wood has proved too he can now sustain his pace over the course of a match, while young Alzarri Joseph has grown another notch by way of stature.
We have heard Stuart Broad give an eyebrow-raising interview in Sky’s new Big Brother-style diary room, while the chosen ones are trying to deliver out in the middle. There has been a remote-controlled robot camera called Dave buzzing around the outfield, with Spidercam and the BatCam drone bringing us pictures from above.
Two county team-mates have played out a selection battle in the middle – Zak Crawley surely nudging Joe Denly out of the XI for Old Trafford with a fine 76 – and two English umpires have stood in a home Test for the first time in 18 years, only to vindicate a beefed-up review system through an understandably rusty performance.
Toes have been crunched, bodies bruised and blood has been shed, with sweat harnessed and saliva outlawed. Twenty-two yards of beige Hampshire soil have changed over the course of the match, bringing a touch of capricious bounce into play, with sun, rain and bad light all having their say at some point.
Grit with the bat has been rewarded in the main, be it Kraigg Brathwaite and Shane Dowrich chiselling out half-centuries in the tourists’ first innings or Dom Sibley in England’s second. But, just to flip this on its head, a previously unfulfilled attacking talent in Jermaine Blackwood then stroked his side to the brink of victory.
It has been a long road to get here, driven by the financial desperation of English cricket and made possible by a laudable collegiate spirit from West Indies. But at the end of this summer’s first helping, we are all richer for it.