Cricket: Tall order for a new order: Derek Pringle believes that England's young side can give the West Indies a close run

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The Independent Online
THE TIMING of this tour is unfortunate for Mike Atherton and England. Twelve months ago, fresh from major rebuilding and in some disarray, the West Indies seemed ripe for the taking, and in a thrilling series, Australia came agonisingly close (losing the fourth Test by one run) to proving the theory. In the end, the West Indians prevailed, winning the decider in Perth by a country mile.

The experience has removed what self-doubts had been lurking in the aftermath of the Viv Richards era, when key players like Greenidge, Marshall and Dujon retired. Regrouping under Richie Richardson, the batting frailties apparent in the 1992 World Cup now appear to have been resolved.

Brian Lara has emerged as a world-class batsman, and if the bowling attack perhaps lacks the depth of venom present in previous sides, Ambrose and Walsh still have a knack of producing a stinging response when it is most needed. Ominously for England, it is very much business as usual.

Touring the West Indies has never been a jolly prospect. Despite the modern trappings - tour wardrobe by Kent and Curwen, preparation and pampering in Portugal courtesy of Whittingdales, and on-tour bonuses and beer from Tetley - there aren't many who would willingly trade places with the England players. The West Indies have not lost a home series for 21 years, so it is easy to understand why English optimism is guarded.

One bookmaker was quoting England at 14-1 for the series, odds Mike Atherton thought at the time to be 'realistic, considering the way we've played recently'. Even more so when it is considered that few Tests are drawn nowadays. That being the case, England would have to win two, or possibly three, Tests to take the series. This is wishful thinking in anyone's book, and yet there is a genuine optimism among the party. As if to reflect this, the odds have been shortened, and 10-1 is at present the best price available.

As ever, getting enough runs will be the main problem, more so now that Gooch, England's one consistent batsman against the West Indies, will not be there. The main bulk of runs (more than 300) must come in the first innings, from intelligent, determined efforts all the way down the order. In Test cricket, games are only saved by leaving the run-scoring until the second innings. Despite an 'understrength' home attack, scoring big totals remains the nut to crack, and to this end guts and good fortune carry an even greater premium than tactics or technique.

Do we have the right men for the job? If everything goes to plan and the lack of a third specialist opener isn't cruelly exposed - Mark Ramprakash appears the likeliest of candidates should Stewart have to resort to the gloves (which many believe will happen sooner rather than later) - England do have a chance, though it is unlikely to present itself in more than two of the five Tests.

Protecting a middle order - the product of much jostling between the likes of Hussain, Thorpe, Maynard, Hick and Ramprakash, with only Robin Smith a certainty - from the new ball will be crucial. To accomplish this, both Stewart and Atherton will have to play out of their respective skins. England's captain is the 11-4 favourite to be England's top run-scorer in the series, but the confidence of Ladbrokes seems a little misplaced considering his last encounter against the West Indies, during the drawn series of 1991, saw him manage just 79 runs in nine completed innings.

Given the unknown quality of all but Smith against this barrage of pace, and the West Indies demolition men's propensity for breaking even the pluckiest of spirits, a place should have been found for the combative Allan Lamb. Without his hundred in Jamaica in 1990, England could not have won the match and Keith Fletcher may yet consider a last-minute deal with the Mirror to get him out there.

Atherton's desire to make a fresh start has courted risk. By breaking from a recent past, notable only for its drubbings by India and Australia, he was replacing world-weary nous and skill with youth and enthusiasm.

Keith Fletcher is happier, too. Having spent three years touring with England A and working mainly with young talent, his elevation to the full England job left him confused, while he was emasculated by the Gooch/Stewart regime he had inherited. Now, with more than a few familiar faces around him and a captain he feels he understands, Fletcher is confident that England can start stringing the right results together.

To achieve this, England will need more than their fair share of luck. It is one of the more enduring myths that pitches in the Caribbean are quick. Most, apart from Antigua - under the auspices of the former Test fast bowler Andy Roberts - are two-paced, with an uneven bounce that errs on the low side as the surface becomes worn.

Though it would be dangerous to assume that these factors, along with most other things in the Caribbean, remain constant, a good covering of grass is often left on some of the pitches. If England win the toss, Atherton must resist the temptation, particularly in Barbados, to insert the home side. In 1990, Lamb did just that only to lose by 164 runs, as England found themselves batting last on a deteriorating pitch against Curtly Ambrose, who took eight wickets in a sustained spell of hostile bowling.

Something that will be different from the last tour is the amount of bouncers a batsman can reasonably expect. Brought in to prevent the often cynical use of short-pitched bowling as a means of intimidation by teams like the West Indies, the ICC regulations of one bouncer per batsman per over will test both local and neutral umpires to the full.

Apart from preventing Smith from overdosing on the buzz he got from his usual four an over last time, it should benefit a number of batsmen as well as some of the less assured duckers down the order. Hick is the one name that springs readily to mind in this respect. During the English summer of 1991, he was tormented by Ambrose, who accounted for him six times in as many meetings.

Both Atherton and Fletcher realise their respective destinies could turn on the results of the next three months. None though, can be more acutely aware of this than Chris Lewis, who has consistently frustrated supporters and selectors alike. With a learning curve close to horizontal, after an exciting debut four years ago, Lewis will not want to be remembered as Test cricket's slowest learner.

If Lewis batting and bowling as we know he can is the key to a balanced side, the presence of either Salisbury or Tufnell could ensure a more potent attack. Atherton is committed to this: 'I should like to be able to play a front-line spinner, conditions permitting.' Picking a spinner poses a tantalising dilemma; West Indian batsmen have a traditional weakness against the turning ball yet most Caribbean grounds are so small, with pitches that rarely turn, that any technical deficiencies are concealed behind aggressive hitting that, as often as not, sees mishits go for six.

Last time around, Gooch adopted an all-seam policy that saw the spinners - Hemmings and Medlycott - virtually surplus to requirements. Gooch was adamant that on his two previous visits the spinners had simply gone for too many runs per over. His policy of playing Fraser, Malcolm, Small and Capel paid dividends at Sabina Park and many are predicting a similar line-up again.

All things being equal, Atherton will probably keep faith with the bowlers who bowled Australia out at The Oval. My feeling is that England should have picked a left- arm bowler like Mark Ilott or Paul Taylor. Certainly the ball that slants across the right-hander towards the slips has paid handsome dividends for both Bruce Reid and Mike Whitney against the West Indies in the past.

England's seam attack, apart from Malcolm, who must simply focus on bowling fast and straight, has a very similar feel to it, with Fraser the class act. Nevertheless, it would still benefit from a cack-hander's angle and should any lingering injury affect one of the bowlers, it ought to be Ilott - who has bowled superbly on England's A Tour of South Africa - who gets the nod.

Apart from a leisurely build-up in Antigua, the hectic itinerary with its back-to-back one-day internationals in Trinidad, and two days' rest between the fourth and fifth Tests, could undermine morale. With sundry island-hopping flights adding to the fatigue, the ability to relax is vital. This is not as easy as you may think and trying to get away from it all is made difficult, according to Ian Botham, by the fact that 'you just can't seem to escape the cricket, because everybody takes an interest'.

This being the case, it is surprising that the West Indies Board continues to lose money on home series. Perhaps this has been due to the one-sided nature of most recent encounters. This time, however, if either Walsh or Ambrose were to become indisposed, it could be a close run thing.

Nevertheless, Atherton realises that he must coax consistently high performances from his men in the most challenging of situations. And to slightly misquote the Duke of Wellington: 'When I see who I have as my men, I tremble. If the enemy should see a list of their names, I hope they tremble too.'

(Photographs and map omitted)