Best and Co promise a Caribbean shoot-out

First Test: Jamaica shows series hinges on pace - who can bowl it and play it best
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The Independent Online

Sometimes, it has been like the old days. England had that haunted look again, the one betraying the fact that the ball was too close to their nostrils.

You could almost sense the tiro fast bowlers of the West Indies, in their aggressive follow throughs, rehearsing an impression of Robert Duvall's character in Apocalypse Now. "Do you smell that? Leather, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of leather in the morning." Duvall was referring to napalm but Fidel Edwards and Tino Best were supplying the cricketing equivalent.

Batsmen may have a different opinion. Those of England throughout the Eighties and much of the Nineties became all too well acquainted with the smell of leather in the morning, after lunch, and after tea. Edwards and Best, both 22, served rapid notice that the old days could indeed return more dependably.

It has also become abundantly clear that, whatever Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan are up to,this series will be dominated and probably decided by extremely fast bowling ­ who conveys it more accurately, and who plays it most wisely and courageously.

To counter the embryonic but threatening partnership of Edwards and Best, England have Stephen Harmison and Simon Jones. The England pair, too, possess high pace and while it would be misguided to ask them to change the temperaments of gentlemen and start foaming at the mouth, a little of what Best and Edwards bring to proceedings might not come amiss. This does not involve abuse but the odd, timely disdainful glance can help to shiver timbers.

Best, especially, has a stare that can pierce a batsman's soul. With Edwards off the pitch being treated for a sore back and side, it was left to Best to expose some concerns about England's venerable middle order and demonstrate that unerring fast bowling instils uncertainty, if not fear, and also takes wickets. Between them, Mark Butcher, Nasser Hussain and Graham Thorpe have 239 Test caps. In the first innings of the First Test they all, to a degree, got in only to get out. Blame the pace, blame the bounce, but it is not what experience is supposed to do. It is not why the selectors invested their faith in them.

Conversely, if this trio were undone by the ferocity of the opposition it could easily be argued that this was no place for novitiates. Had Butcher and Hussain wilted on Friday evening, England would have been in big trouble. But they stuck at it, rode their luck, took the blows, sensing that there were happier sessions ahead. Similarly, Thorpe seemed imperturbable yesterday morning. Of the trio's dismissals perhaps his, to a hook, was the most disappointing. He was involved in some eyeball to eyeball contact with Best and almost immediately took on a fast bouncer. If he went out for dinner last night he was probably not in the mood to answer any invitation from a Kingston card sharp to play find the lady.

A lead, any lead, was what England required. Big totals are uncommon at Sabina Park, although in the five matches since the débâcle of the last Test England played at the ground (the match was abandoned on the first morning with England at 17 for 3 on a minefield) 400 has been passed twice and 300 also twice by sides in their first innings.

The other statistic to concern the tourists is the West Indian record in Kingston. They might have been in decline for nigh on 10 years but in the 30 Tests on the ground since 1955 they have lost only two, and only one of the last 10 ­ against Australia.

While England were being assailed on the pitch, that was nothing to what was happening off it. The Zimababwean issue has entered a new, disturbing phase. If England were fighting to try to establish a platform for victory in Jamaica, they are struggling for their very survival in the cricketing corridors of power.

Officially, the England and Wales Cricket have still to decide whether they will tour Zimbabwe this autumn. Unofficially, they have long since decided not to go. The debate will be formally resumed at the management board meeting on 24 March and formally decided on 20 April.

Between those two dates, England are hoping the ICC will confirm the Champions' Trophy for England by signing the contract. The ECB are profoundly worried about losing the $5m that the event is worth to them. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to wash with the straight-faced men at the International Cricket Council, or, importantly, the other full members. On the one hand, England are adopting a moral stance, on the other they still want the ICC's money before they formally put it into practice. This will be allied to their promise to Zimbabwe last year to fulfil their obligation to tour so long as Zimbabwe came to England. Respect for England's position is hard to find. They are seen as claiming the moral high ground only when it suits.

David Morgan, the ECB chairman, was given a frosty welcome during the ICC executive meeting in Auckland last week. But the ECB backed the proposal that countries not fulfilling tours should be fined $2m and possibly suspended. They continue to be bullish. "If we decide not to go Zimbabwe, we are still optimistic of persuading the ICC of the soundness of our case," said a spokesman. But they may also be thinking of moving their offices to cloud cuckoo land.