Cricket: West Indies wait in a fragile state: England to face blunted pace attack

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The Independent Online
LONDON bookmakers are quoting odds of 14-1 against England for their forthcoming Test series in the West Indies, which suggests that either they are lacking the latest intelligence from the Caribbean or they are choosing to ignore it.

The bookies' assessment appears to be based more on England's abysmal record than on present reality. When Michael Atherton's young team arrive in Antigua on Saturday to start their preparations, they will find the opposition harbouring a few rare self-doubts and knowledgeable local opinion - from Sir Garfield Sobers down to the porter who will move their baggage - predicting a far closer contest than the gurus at the betting shops.

England's first hint that all is not what it might be in the West Indies camp will be the absence of the captain, Richie Richardson, from the welcoming committee. He is in Miami taking a month's break from cricket on the advice of his doctor, who pronounced him suffering from 'chronic fatigue and mild anaemia' on his return last month from Sharjah, India and Sri Lanka.

Even before the extent of his own burn-out was diagnosed, Richardson was voicing concern over the weariness of his key fast bowlers, Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh, both over 30, and pleading that they be rested from the current Red Stripe Cup tournament to be ready for England.

Conscious of the need to maintain standards and please sponsors, the West Indies Board has stipulated that Test selection is conditional on participation in the cup, except for injury or illness, and Ambrose and Walsh have both had to play. Walsh sent down 49.3 overs and took 7 for 108 for Jamaica in the opening match that ended on Monday, and Ambrose bowled 30 overs for the Leeward Islands and collected 3 for 71.

Another four rounds of matches remain over the next five weekends so there will be no break for the West Indians prior to the first one-day international in Barbados on 16 February, which is immediately followed by the first Test in Jamaica from 19 to 24 February.

Since Richardson took over from Viv Richards as captain in October, 1991, and they began rebuilding their team, the West Indies have had no let-up in their winter schedules. Contracts with English counties during the summer have meant most of their players have gone straight from one country to the next, in pursuit of their profession.

Richardson, Ambrose and Walsh, for instance, performed in 30 towns and cities in seven countries in 1993. It finally got to Richardson and he reckons it will get to others, principally the overworked bowlers.

As it is, the West Indies no longer boast the quantity and quality of pace that was the main reason for their prolonged invincibility.

Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Joel Garner and Colin Croft, in the early 1980s, comprised as formidable a quartet as there has ever been and, in more recent times, England have had to contend with a combination only slightly less menacing: Ambrose, Walsh, Malcolm Marshall, Patrick Patterson and Ian Bishop.

Marshall has retired, Patterson has fallen from favour and Bishop will not be able to bowl again until the summer, when he rejoins Derbyshire, because of a stress fracture of the back. No young tearaway has burst on to the scene, as they so often do in the Caribbean, and the support for Ambrose and Walsh has come from the unrelated Benjamins, Winston and Kenneth, and Andy Cummins - all worthy triers with modest county records who are unlikely to worry Atherton and his fellow batsmen.

A number of younger contenders will be closely watched in the coming weeks. The most prominent are Franklyn Rose, 22, of Jamaica, Vasbert Drakes, 24, of Barbados, and an Ambrose lookalike from the Windward Islands, Cameron Cuffy, 22. All are tall, strong and have a turn of speed but do not appear to be world-beaters.

What is more, they are not being encouraged by the pitches, nor by the International Cricket Council's anti- bouncer regulation. Sabina Park, the venue for the first Test, has long since lost its reputation for pace and bounce, and Kensington, Barbados, where the West Indies have won their last 11 Tests, has reverted to its former character that prompted the high-scoring exploits of such Barbadian greats as the three Ws: Everton Weekes, Frank Worrell and Clyde Walcott.

In the recent past, England's Caribbean campaigns have been filled with wickets, bones and dreams shattered by fearsome fast bowlers on lively pitches. The signs are that it is likely to be different this time, even if the bookmakers have not yet recognised this.