England have golden opportunity but the bowlers have to learn fast

Michael Vaughan's 16-man squad, who departed for the Caribbean yesterday, only have to look at Nasser Hussain to realise how long it has been since England last won a Test series in the West Indies. The drawn match that sealed victory for Colin Cowdrey's side in 1968 began in Georgetown, Guyana on 28 March - the same day that the former England captain threw his first toy out of a pram.

Hussain's 36th birthday falls in between the second and third Test matches on this tour, but by then Vaughan's players will have a good idea of whether or not they will make history.

Australia may now be England's most feared opponents but the Caribbean is the destination where they have had the least success. Of the 29 Test matches played here between these two sides since 1968, England have won just four. The West Indies, meanwhile, have rattled up 16 victories.

It is unlikely that England will ever get a better opportunity of winning here than during the next seven weeks. The West Indies appear more vulnerable than they have ever been, and if England wish to be looked upon as a team which is moving in the right direction, this is a series they must win.

England's cause is helped by the current shortage of quality fast bowlers in the Caribbean but this is not the only reason for optimism. For the first time in 20 years England will travel with a bowling attack containing greater firepower than that of their opponents. They may be inexperienced but Stephen Harmison, Simon Jones, James Anderson, Matthew Hoggard, Andrew Flintoff and Rikki Clarke provide Vaughan with an exciting and capable pack of young fast bowlers.

Injury has hampered the speed at which this group has developed, and each is still coming to terms with what is required in Test cricket, but the potential is there to make England a major force. With potential, however, comes expectation and it is in their nervous and inconsistent fingers that the destiny of this four-Test series rests.

The left-arm spin of Ashley Giles has an important role to play but, as on previous tours, it will have more to do with containment than wicket-taking. Phil Edmonds, John Emburey, Derek Underwood and Philip Tufnell have all bowled well in the Caribbean - but not one of them has won a match.

Each, however, has had a valuable role to play. Their job has been to give the captain control when the time has come for him to rest his pacemen. Giles will be expected to perform the same task, but his chances of taking wickets will be better than those of his predecessors because of the number of left-handers in the West Indian batting line-up.

The pitches have changed dramatically over the last 14 years and they are no longer the quick, bouncy surfaces on which Michael Holding, Joel Garner, Andy Roberts and Colin Croft terrified opponents.

However, this is still a place where the fast bowlers win Test matches. The four Test venues used in this series will provide conditions which resemble those found on the sub-continent. Unlike Asia, though, the grounds are small and the surfaces offer little assistance to the slow men.

The addition of Jones to Vaughan's squad has given the tourists a major boost. The Glamorgan fast bowler is still raw but he looks like a cricketer who makes things happen. England's bowlers need to be aggressive but this hostility has to be controlled. West Indian batsmen love to go for their shots and anything loose will be sent crashing to the boundary.

The rough nature of the pitches and outfields here means that the shine on a new ball will only last 10 to 15 overs. It is therefore crucial that England's bowlers make the most of the new ball and become skilful users of the old. It is not that the new ball will swing - none of the great West Indian bowlers, with the exception of the late Malcolm Marshall, consistently moved the ball in the air - but the hardness of it will give the bowler a greater chance of exploiting the inconsistent bounce which develops as games progress.

Bowling the right line will be tough against a batting line-up containing four or five left-handers, and England's bowlers should be encouraged to come around the wicket if the ball is not swinging. But it is vital that they make the batsmen play because the failure to take early wickets could lead to long, exhausting days under a hot sun. Reverse swing is an option but it is a skill that English bowlers have failed to use effectively since Darren Gough retired.

England's schedule - two three-day games in Kingston before the first Test - is far from perfect. Making tours as short as possible has become the trend but this approach fails to give visiting sides the amount of preparation they require.

It also means that England will need to have a good idea of their Test side before the first warm-up match on 1 March. With only four possible innings and four chances to bowl in the middle before 11 March, each member of the touring party will want to play in both these matches. Sixteen, however does not go into 11 and there will be one or two players cursing Vaughan and Duncan Fletcher, the England coach, when they announce the teams for these warm-up matches.

In an effort to alleviate this problem, Fletcher has previously asked to make these games 12-a-side. It is to be hoped England's opponents do not allow this to happen because these matches would then lose their first-class status, turning them into even more of a non-event than they often are.

But whether the runs England's batsmen score in these matches count as first-class will not matter to Hussain. All he will be concerned with is scoring runs, because at 35 he realises time is running out and his place in the side could be given to Paul Collingwood. Before the squad was announced, there was talk of Hussain being omitted but the experience gained from three previous tours of the Caribbean ensured him of his place.

This, however, is something Hussain refuses to accept. "All the stuff about Hussain going because of his experience is a load of nonsense," he said. "Players are picked to score runs and take wickets. If you can then help players along the way, then fine, but my job is to score runs and the sooner everyone realises this the better. We had a lot of experience in Sri Lanka but that did not help matters."

In a shortened series - Test series in the West Indies are normally five-match affairs - it is crucial that England start strongly. Everyone will be watching the pitch at Sabina Park closely following the abandonment of the Test match there six years ago, but it is the second Test in Port of Spain, Trinidad, which could decide the series. The inconsistent nature of the pitch at the Queen's Park Oval should produce a result and it is the venue where this tour could be decided.

It was under Hussain's captaincy in 2000 that England regained the Wisden Trophy after a 27-year period during which it was held by the West Indies. And it is the desire not to give it back to Brian Lara at the first time of asking which keeps Hussain motivated.

"I have never found it hard to motivate myself," Hussain said. "At times it has been my failing because I have put too much pressure on myself. But as well as scoring runs I want to see the side do well.

"Things like winning the Wisden Trophy are now more important," he added. "We went through such turmoil to win it and I do not just want to go back over there and hand it straight back. The only reason I am getting on the plane is to score runs and win Test matches."

The young West Indian quicks will try and hit England's batsmen hard but a certain Brian Charles Lara will be the toughest obstacle to move. The world's greatest batsman is motivated and back in form and there is nothing he enjoys more than scoring runs against England. It should make for a fascinating series, if a difficult one to predict.

ON A MISSION FIVE ENGLAND PLAYERS WITH A POINT TO PROVE IN THE CARIBBEAN

Michael Vaughan

This tour will play a major part in determining Vaughan's future as the England captain. The West Indies are a tough team to beat at home but this is a series England should win. If Vaughan succeeds in the Caribbean, he can look forward to the summer. If he loses, he will be under enormous pressure to beat New Zealand and the West Indies when they visit England. The attitude of England's players towards his tough fitness and training regime before Christmas was excellent but it is results which will decide his future. A big hundred in the first Test would finally convince people that the captaincy is not having a detrimental effect on his batting.

Nasser Hussain

If the former England captain is to reach his goal of 100 Test match appearances he needs a good tour of the Caribbean. Hussain disappointed in Sri Lanka before Christmas and there were rumours that a couple of England's selectors were unhappy to see the 35-year-old play ahead of Paul Collingwood in the third Test in Colombo. His central contract and the experience gained from three tours here will probably give him first crack in Jamaica and it is this sort of pressure that often brings out the best in him. The Caribbean, however, has not been a good hunting ground for Hussain. In his nine Tests here he averages just 28.

Stephen Harmison

In his last Test match the Durham paceman highlighted what an influential bowler he could become. The opposition may have been Bangladesh but Harmison's hostile bowling enabled him to take nine wickets in the match and claim the man-of-the-match award. But, following this display, the 25 year-old returned home with a back injury and during this lay-off things turned sour. Reports of an apathetic approach towards regaining full fitness reached Asia and several of the senior players began to question his attitude and desire. On this tour Harmison now needs to win back the respect and affection of those players.

Chris Read

Filling the void left by Alec Stewart was always going to be difficult but after just five Test matches Read is already under pressure for his place. With the gloves the 25-year-old is a class act and few doubt his ability behind the stumps after tidy performances in both Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. These days, however, teams require their wicketkeeper to be an all-rounder with a batting average in excess of 30. Read currently averages just 16 and if he plays in England's first warm-up game ahead of Geraint Jones - which is debatable - he needs to score heavily. If he fails, the Kent keeper is likely to get the nod in the first Test.

James Anderson

The stock of the Lancashire seamer reached its peak at The Oval in June 2003 when, against Pakistan, he became the first England bowler to take a hat-trick in a one-day international. Since then his slide from the top has been almost as dramatic as his initial thrust. Anderson has the ability to be an England bowler for several years to come but he needs to prove to himself and his followers that this drop is just a temporary blip. Tiredness and injury were used as excuses and he played just one Test in Sri Lanka, but after two months of rest his body should be fit, strong and full of energy.

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