There is a spring in England’s step. It is always this way at the start of a tour because it is accompanied by hope and sometimes faith. Never mind what has gone before, a new beginning is at hand.
This time it is different. This time it really is a new beginning, the era of English cricket immediately after the dismissal of Kevin Pietersen, its greatest star of recent times. To complement that, they are between coaches after the departure of Andy Flower and utterly bereft of form after losing 12 of 13 international matches on the recent tour of Australia across all formats.
Given those circumstances, it is the sort of spring in the step which could lead to a spectacular tumble. For the moment, Pietersen remains the ubiquitous figure.
This sojourn in the West Indies, the preparatory phase for the World Twenty20 in Bangladesh, is the first tour in 10 years for which he has not been available for reasons other than injury, rest and a brief retirement after an earlier disagreement about his treatment. But he was always around then, frequently the spectre at the feast, invariably missed.
There is an obvious dilemma confronting the players who are charged with launching England’s brave new world, which has a kind of start today with a match against the University of West Indies Vice-Chancellor’s XI. They want to pay due homage to his thrilling record but, equally, they want to talk about the future without him.
Nobody wants to move on more than England now. It is all everyone is talking about. Moving on, indeed, is the buzz phrase. They are paying lip service to Pietersen because they are inevitably being asked about him, but pretty soon it is possible to imagine that he will be airbrushed from history.
If the England and Wales Cricket Board could think of a way of expunging his record without handing back, say, the Ashes won in 2005 or the World Twenty20 in 2010 which he illuminated, it probably would. But in a way Pietersen is as present now as ever – and this is someone who had actually appeared in only 22 of England’s 57 one-day internationals since the last World Cup in 2011.
The intrigue surrounding the unceremonious sacking of a player who had been invited to sign an England central contract, supposed to last a year, only in October will not abate yet. The arrival in Antigua today of the new managing director of England cricket, Paul Downton, who has yet to utter a public word on that or any other issue, will ensure that.
It is disguising, though not for much longer if things do not change, the woeful recent record. This fresh England have arrived in the Caribbean carrying the baggage of the squad which contrived to lose cataclysmically in Australia. After England had gone down 5-0 in the Ashes series it was impossible to imagine matters would worsen. They did.
Downton has inherited a mess which is simply not of his making and was expected by no one. Make no mistake, England are at a low ebb, with no clear idea as yet of how it might change.
Jos Buttler, the wonderfully talented wicketkeeper-batsman on whom much of the possible success of this bright, brave, fresh era will depend, said yesterday: “Losing in Australia is as hard as it gets but it is important to know that at some point it will turn around. You have to have the belief and confidence. You keep getting knocked down but you keep getting back up and you go again.
“You can only use those experiences to learn from what you did and if you don’t, you don’t go anywhere. I think it’s important that we reflected on that tour and took things that we need to do and moved on. There are different faces around, a change in team director, it is a different era.”
Something may click in the next few weeks but, even if England manage to do well here against the present world T20 champions, it is impossible to be optimistic about their chances in the Bangladesh tournament. At least, they can use the next three weeks as an intense restorative course.
A difficulty with usual limited-overs tours is that there is precious little time to work on all those tricks which are necessary to the plying of the trade – the innovative strokes, changes in style for different bowlers, slower balls, faster balls, how an over might be pieced together.
In the next fortnight or so, England can draw breath a little while hoping that some spark will emerge from it all which will allow them to start winning again. Ashley Giles, the limited-overs coach who is favourite to take over the whole shebang when the roles are merged once more, is having an extended audition.
He has an obvious early opportunity to impress Downton. Giles was almost certainly being groomed to take over from Flower next year, probably after the home Ashes series. Events have changed that and this tour has assumed an importance to him and to England beyond a ragbag of matches in paradise.