England's cricketers left holly and hurricanes behind to jet off to the Caribbean this morning. Unfortunately they also left behind their best bowler, which on the face of it is a bit like being invited to a barbecue and then having your incisors removed.
Darren Gough's late withdrawal on New Year's Eve came as a surprise to Michael Atherton, though the England captain hinted that the fast bowler could well rejoin the tour at a later date should his hamstring problems clear up.
Speaking at the team's Gatwick hotel last night, a fit and relaxed-looking Atherton said: "Goughie's withdrawal is disappointing for us and him. Since the South African tour, he's been back to his best. But injury is part and parcel of the game. You've just got to learn to get on with it. Although Goughie would definitely be one of the first-choice bowlers, it gives opportunities to others like Angus Fraser who might not have been."
With the first Test not starting until 29 January, it will give ample time for the other bowlers to work out ways of doing without him. Indeed, with Gough's injury not apparently structural, it is not out of the question that he could be declared fit during the tour.
"I spoke to him not long ago," Atherton said. "He's got hope in the back of his mind and he sees a specialist in about three or four weeks' time. If he gets the all-clear, I don't see why he can't be available for the back end of the tour. The first Test isn't for another month."
Atherton, who has spent the last three weeks holidaying in Jamaica, is adamant that England have their best chance in 30 years of beating the West Indies on home soil.
"The Pakistan result has certainly hit everyone pretty hard out there, but as ever, they are looking forward to England coming," he said. "We have an excellent chance of doing well, and while it is difficult to predict results, recent contests between the two sides have been close and hard fought. Although they are not as strong as the sides of the Eighties, they shouldn't be underestimated at home.
"Playing at our best, as we did against Australia at Edgbaston and The Oval, we can beat anyone. However, consistency is the key, and if we play like we did in the middle of last summer, we won't beat anyone."
According to Atherton and those of his team who have played there before, the Caribbean is probably the best tour of all. But while their predecessors had bits chipped off them by an unrelenting pace attack, the current generation has grown up with an admiration and respect for the way West Indies cricket is played and watched.
It should make for a happy side and a happy captain, a consideration the selectors clearly had in mind when they confirmed Atherton as one- day captain as well. They knew that had they appointed Adam Hollioake instead that it might well niggle away at him, distracting him from the main task of winning the Test series. Without the fast bowling of Darren Gough, that objective has become just a little more distant.