A day out from the third Test between England and New Zealand and Headingley could scarcely have looked more ripe for the occasion, with azure skies overhead, the white roof of the new football stand shimmering in the sunshine and the combination of a beige pitch and cambered green outfield hinting at another feast of runs.
There is a huge appetite for this match, too. England may be 2-0 up with one to play but the swagger shown during the run chase at Trent Bridge last week – plus a trio of locally produced players in Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow and Alex Lees – has left around 400 tickets spare on days one and four, with two sell-outs sandwiched in between. Around £3m in net revenue is on the cards and that is before punters have slaked their thirsts and filled bellies at the various bars and food outlets.
This is, of course, the Headingley Test that nearly wasn’t and one only needs to look up at the rebranded Clean Slate Pavilion for a reminder of the fact. The tie-in with an Indian digital streaming company – owned by Virat Kohli’s brother-in-law, Karnesh Sharma – is among a number of fresh commercial deals secured by Lord Patel, Yorkshire’s new chair, and his executive team since the exodus of partners that resulted from the club’s undoubtedly botched handling of Azeem Rafiq’s racism allegations.
Yorkshire’s international host status was suspended by the England and Wales Cricket Board last November and their hosting of this prestigious and lucrative fixture was thrown into doubt. Losing it – something Rafiq himself did not want to see – would have risked financial ruin at Headingley. But the new regime has since demonstrated enough reform to lead to the ban being lifted, even if the governing body last week charged the club and a number of former employees with bringing the game into disrepute.
Those charges, made public the day after Trent Bridge like a bucket of cold water, remain unresolved. So, too, the employment tribunal cases that resulted from the sacking of 16 staff members and could yet cost Yorkshire a pretty penny. But it was still disappointing that no representative from either the club or the ECB was around to discuss Test cricket’s return to Headingley during the two training days. Instead, as is too often the case when things get tricky, the players were left to field the questions.
“It’s been incredibly sad to see what has unfolded,” said Kane Williamson, the New Zealand captain who returns – after missing the second Test with Covid-19 – to the ground he called home during four spells between 2013 and 2018.
“I can only hope that something positive comes out of it and the awareness that it’s created. There is no place for racism or discrimination in sport or in society. I enjoyed my time here at Yorkshire. Clearly there were some issues that I was made aware of more recently and you can only hope that through this there is healing.”
Ben Stokes, Williamson’s opposite number, preferred even broader terms, citing the responsibility of his England players to be role models on and off the field; to play their cricket in a way which will attract new supporters. “That’s all we can do, that’s what we’re good at – going out and playing cricket and winning games,” he said.
It was probably expecting too much for either captain to delve deeply into what has been a nuclear affair by way of fallout, and not least when the suits opted for the ostrich approach. Still, it was an early reminder for Stokes, the less experienced of the two, that his opinion will be sought on a range of issues beyond tactics, selection and the buccaneering approach his players have shown thus far.
Stokes was more forthcoming on these topics before his first Test at Headingley since his historic Ashes heist here in 2019. And shortly after he spoke, up on the Dickie Bird players’ balcony, was the sight of Jamie Overton on the phone with a smile as broad as the Taw-Torridge Estuary near his old club in north Devon. The younger of the Overton twins by a mere three minutes is set to make his Test debut after Jimmy Anderson left Nottingham with swelling to his left ankle.
Overton’s promotion – one which has seen him leapfrog Craig in the pecking order and hands Matt Potts his first chance with the new ball – injects pace into England’s attack, something which may be required looking at the pitch. But then the adage at Headingley is to look up, not down, and though day one looks to be another scorcher, more cloud cover (and possible rain) is due to roll in over the weekend.
New Zealand are set for a couple of changes. Williamson’s return will push out one member of the top seven, while Kyle Jamieson is missing from the attack with a back injury. It could be that all-rounder Michael Bracewell makes way for his captain and Neil Wagner brings his brand of left-arm thunder. No spinner would be a risk, however, and so Ajaz Patel could also come in for Matt Henry or Tim Southee.
The motivation? Both sides have talked up World Test Championship points on offer despite neither threatening a place in next year’s final. A greater carrot for England, at least, is the prospect of a first series clean-sweep since beating India 4-0 at home 11 years ago.
As for Yorkshire, the aim is to show that Headingley is welcoming to all and the decision to lift their international suspension was not ill-judged.
England (confirmed): Lees, Crawley, Pope, Root, Bairstow, Stokes (c), Foakes (wk), J Overton, Leach, Potts, Broad.
New Zealand (possible): Latham, Young, Williamson, Conway, Nicholls, Mitchell, Blundell, Southee, Wagner, Patel, Boult.