Cricket: Time for England to fulfil their greatest expectation

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Not so long ago, tours to the West Indies were no more than exercises in damage limitation, where at times medical insurance appeared more essential than a bat. Times and the laws of cricket have changed however, and Derek Pringle says Michael Atherton's England team, who leave for the Caribbean tomorrow morning, have a realistic chance of returning in April as winners - providing they do not lose either of the first two Tests.

Unless you have unlimited wealth, or some serious firepower, the Caribbean is not the the kind of place to live out your dreams. But while many have come to conquer, few, particularly visiting cricket teams, have managed to leave as victors, and since 1968 only Australia and India have managed to beat the West Indies on home soil. It is a formidable record and one Michael Atherton's side must now overcome, if they are at last to be considered amongst the Test-playing elite.

With the Ashes out of reach, at least until this time next year, the next few months represent an opportunity to become the defining moment of Atherton's captaincy. Win, or at least draw, and England and their current leader can move forward with genuine optimism. Lose heavily, and the inertia caused by yet another failure abroad will surely have to be tackled by a change in direction and leadership, an option Atherton himself considered only a few months ago.

For England's captain, the situation promises to be far more tense than his last visit to these breezy isles four years ago. Then expectations were low, with a young England side and their fledgling captain travelling more in hope than conviction. This time, however, despite Ladbrokes making the West Indies 4-7 favourites (England are 7-2) for the series, the portents are good, despite Darren Gough's late withdrawal, a set-back that should at least concentrate the minds of Andy Caddick and Dean Headley.

For one thing, Atherton is far more experienced (he has now captained England a year longer than it took him to attain an honours degree at Cambridge), and secondly, the West Indies are a weaker side, in some disarray after losing heavily in Pakistan.

Indeed, when England set off from Gatwick tomorrow bound for a fortnight's acclimatisation in Antigua, Atherton's men will have the best chance in two generations of breaching fortress Caribbean and winning the Wisden Trophy, a prize not seen in England since Raymond Illingworth hoisted it aloft at The Oval, almost 30 years ago.

To accomplish that they must consistently achieve two things: a first- innings total of at least 280 - Caribbean pitches rarely get better - and an ability to shackle and frustrate the West Indies batsman with disciplined bowling and ferocious fielding. It should help that nine of the 16-strong party toured there last time and know the score, although with some players forewarned is not always necessarily forearmed.

What they must categorically not do is lose the first Test at Sabina Park in Kingston. Do that and those two ageing but experienced warhorses Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose (35 and 34 respectively) could well rouse themselves for one last hurrah. If they do, it could prove doubly disadvantageous, and instead of the two greener fast bowlers, Mervyn Dillon and Franklyn Rose, being put under pressure, they will get a far easier ride in the senior pair's slipstream.

Mind you, however well the pacemen bowl as a group, the recent laws on bouncer limitation mean they are unlikely to rival the menace of the fast bowling juggernauts of the past. Michael Holding, Andy Roberts, Colin Croft, Joel Garner, Malcolm Marshall and Patrick Patterson were all combined to formidable effect over the years, and with them operating session after session even the most unpromising situations were retrieved by their confidence-rupturing quick bowling.

England have several batsmen who play fast bowling well. Atherton has long found his best against the West Indies, and with Alec Stewart set to bat instead of keep - at least initially - he will have an opening partner capable of taking anything wayward with the new ball apart. Graham Thorpe, too, pulls and cuts well, and the home side may well have to resort to playing a leg-spinner, with Rawl Lewis the leading contender.

These days, with most pitches deader than they used to be, the bowlers need longer to bowl sides out, which means the batsmen tend to have to score their runs at a fair old lick, and why England's bowlers must be iron-willed in sticking to their length and line.

When Australia won in the Caribbean in April 1995, it was not Shane Warne that held the key - Caribbean grounds are often too small for spinners to exert pressure - but the unstinting efforts of Australia's then second- choice seamers. Glenn McGrath, Paul Reiffel and Brendon Julian, were all thrown in at the deep end following injuries to Craig McDermott and Damien Fleming, a situation co-incidentally echoed by Gough's withdrawal a few days ago.

England can do likewise, providing Brian Lara does not take the game away from them as he did in the first two Tests four years ago when his pair of audacious run-a-ball centuries set up victory. Two down after two, and with the catastrophe of being bowled out for 46 in Trinidad to follow will surely have burned itself too deep into Atherton's memory to be repeated.

Currently troubled by what he sees as a plot to prevent him becoming captain, Lara is the one batsman on either side capable of total domination and of shaping the series. But while recent series have shown him to be fallible, his Test average against England is currently 91.94 - over twice as much as it is against other teams at 40.79. Pity the man who spills him in the gully early on.

Ironically, many believe - the selectors amongst them - that Lara would make a better captain than Walsh. Certainly Lara, captain of Trinidad since he was 20, hankers after the post and many feel if he were to be be appointed that his innate confidence might rub off on the rest of the team.

That the West Indies Cricket Board took the contrary view before the debacle in Pakistan has bought about much ferment, and the old inter-island rivalries, patched over during the glory days, are once again beginning to simmer, with Jamaica, home to the board's chairman, Pat Rousseau, as well as the current skipper, Walsh, attracting most of the flak.

Clearly not everyone can be kept happy and although Walsh, ever the consummate professional, has stated he will play under any captain, the best way out might be to appoint someone like Jimmy Adams, although he too hails from Jamaica.

It is a rum old row and whichever way you look at it England's chances of a series victory could well be boosted by what looks to be an unavoidably controversial decision.

ENGLAND SQUAD FOR WEST INDIES TOUR

Mike Atherton (Lancs) (captain) Age 29, Tests 73.

Nasser Hussain (Essex) (vice-captain)

Age 29, Tests 23.

Mark Butcher (Surrey) Age 25, Tests 5.

Andy Caddick (Somerset) Age 28, Tests 16.

Ashley Cowan (Essex) Age 22, Tests 0.

John Crawley (Lancs) Age 25, Tests 22.

Robert Croft (Glamorgan) Age 27, Tests 10.

Angus Fraser (Middlesex) Age 32, Tests 32.

Dean Headley (Kent) Age 27, Tests 3.

Adam Hollioake (Surrey) Age 26, Tests 2.

Mark Ramprakash (Middx) Age 28, Tests 20.

Chris Silverwood (Yorks) Age 22, Tests 1.

Jack Russell (Gloucs) Age 34, Tests 49.

Alec Stewart (Surrey) Age 34, Tests 69.

Graham Thorpe (Surrey) Age 28, Tests 43.

Phil Tufnell (Middlesex) Age 31, Tests 28.

Tour Itinerary

16-19 January v Jamaica Under-23 (Four days); 22-25 January v Jamaica (Four days); 29 January-2 February First Test (Jamaica); 6-9 February Four-day match (Trinidad and Tobago); 13-17 February Second Test (Trinidad and Tobago); 21-23 February Three-day match (Guyana); 27 February-3 March Third Test (Guyana); 7-9 March Three-day match (Barbados); 12-16 March Fourth Test (Barbados); 20-24 March Fifth Test (Antigua); 27 March v Vice Chancellor's XI (Barbados) (One day); 29 March First one-day international (Barbados); 1 April Second one-day international (St Lucia); 4 April Third one-day international (St Vincent); 5 April Fourth one-day international (St Vincent); 8 April Fifth one-day international (Trinidad and Tobago).

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