England's cricketers crammed themselves into the rickety Liat Avro 748 for yet another hop across the Caribbean Sea, flying away from their latest humiliation at the hands of the West Indies' reserves in Grenada to prepare for tomorrow's fourth Test in Barbados .

The portents are not encouraging. The fragile spirit of Mike Atherton's young and inexperienced team seems terminally crushed by what Curtly Ambrose did to them in Port of Spain last week.

Only 24 hours before they succumbed to his whirling right arm and were routed for a lamentable 46, they had been in buoyant mood, having shown courage in disregarding their heavy defeats in the first two Tests. They had even put themselves in a winning position. Then came Graeme Hick's critical dropped catch at second slip off Chanderpaul that prompted the West Indian revival and allowed Ambrose to run rampant.

If their tattered spirits were capable of restoration, Kensington Oval in Bridgetown is probably the last place on earth to start. The West Indies have only ever lost one Test at the ground - in 1935 to England in a bizarre match on an unprotected, rain-ruined pitch - and have won their last 12 in succession. The 5-0 clean sweeps previously achieved under Clive Lloyd in 1984 and Viv Richards in 1986 - the inevitably termed 'black washes' - is only 40 wickets away. Ambrose has said they'd like to do it especially for the current captain, Richie Richardson.

Nor will the presence of 6,000 fellow Brits out on package holidays for the Test, flying their Union Jacks, baring their freshly bronzed bodies and stretching the ground's capacity to the limit, necessarily be a source of inspiration. Among them will be a host of former England players, embarrassed by the sequence of events over the past few weeks and each willing to put in his two cents' worth of criticism.

So what's new? No tourists have won in the Caribbean since 1973, which means that a generation has grown up not having to go through what their fathers and grandfathers did as the West Indies shakily struggled to establish themselves in Test cricket. They simply don't expect to lose.

In cricket, as in nothing else, the West Indians have asserted their superiority. They have taken a game from their colonial masters, fashioned it in their own distinctive style and perfected it. They may still depend on Britain and the other white industrialised countries to give preference to their sugar and banana exports and invest in their tourism. But in cricket it is they who dictate the pace. It is a vital psychological asset.

'I sense that winning an ultimate contest is more important for the black person than anyone else,' Viv Richards, the most prominent and politically aware of West Indian players of the past decade, wrote in his autobiography. 'It feels like a vindication. The sense of pride attached to such wins is phenomenal.'

Even before his team touched down in the Caribbean, Atherton identified this strength, observing that they used 'their racial or cultural distinctiveness to their advantage to remind themselves of their identity'.

Conquering England was once the West Indians' supreme goal. Their first Test victory in England, at Lord's in 1950, triggered wild celebrations throughout the islands. A public holiday was declared and calypsos were written. The desire to dominate the former rulers in a game of cricket has diminished in proportion to England's declining status as a Test power. Now they are more concerned with retaining the astonishing record of not having lost a series to anyone, anywhere for 14 years.

Yet they don't expect opponents to roll over quite so meekly as England have done. Their present team doesn't bear comparison with the West Indies of a decade ago.

Clive Lloyd ('My gut feeling is that the Test series is going to be close') and Sir Gary Sobers ('I think we're in for a tremendous series') were two respected opinions reflecting feeling on the ground that London bookmakers were unrealistic in quoting 14-1 against England before they arrived. There is a sense of annoyance, almost betrayal, intermingled with the natural triumphalism accompanying the latest West Indian victory.

Voices in the press have denounced England as frauds masquerading as international cricketers. Colin Croft, one of the fast bowlers who tormented England in the 1980s along with Andy Roberts, Michael Holding and Joel Garner, has suggested that Graeme Hick be sent home for not fronting up to the fast bowling.

Yet there is some grassroots sympathy for England's plight. There is also the realisation that England remains the heart of the international game, the home of the only professional circuits, at county and club level, to be found anywhere. Hundreds of players from every cricketing country earn a living through them every summer and gain valuable experience. If England continue to falter on the bottom rung of the Test table, interest is bound to wane and the professional game will wither.

But if there is mutual interest and sympathy, it is tempered with anger. It was England who took the lead at the attempt of the International Cricket Council to weaken the West Indies through the imposition of laws aimed at fast bowlers, regulating an over rate of 15 an hour and a bouncer rate of not more than one an over per batsman.

'We have the will and the playing skills to overcome whatever obstacles our opponents put in our way,' sports editor Louis Brathwaite wrote in the Barbados Sunday Advocate in a column headlined 'We are the greatest'.

'It is now left to our players to continue to show the English team that cricket is not played in the conference room, where some decisions seem to be made to pressure the West Indies, but on the field of play where performance is key.'

The second factor is the TV commentary. Caribbean stations carry the identical coverage that is beamed to Sky and there have been widespread charges of bias.

'Despite the brave Caribbean Broadcasting Union logo at the bottom left-hand corner of our screens, we have been the recipients of a distinctly English message from the TV medium throughout the series,' Oliver Jackman, a former Barbadian ambassador to Brussels, wrote last Sunday. 'Whatever the naked eye may appear to be telling us, the message is a message of the English, by the English and for the English.'

----------------------------------------------------------------- WEST INDIES HOME RECORD ----------------------------------------------------------------- 1968 lost to England 0-1 1971 lost to India 0-1 1972 drew New Zealand, 0-0 1973 lost to Australia 0-2 1974 drew with England 1-1 1976 beat India 2-1 1977 beat Pakistan 2-1 1978 beat Australia 3-1 1981 beat England 2-0 1983 beat India 2-0 1984 beat Australia 3-0 1985 beat New Zealand 2-0 1986 beat England 5-0 1988 drew with Pakistan 1-1 1989 beat India 3-0 1990 beat England 2-1 1991 beat Australia 2-1 1992 beat South Africa 1-0 1993 beat Pakistan 2-0 -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photographs omitted)