England's four-test series against the West Indies is scheduled to last 20 days but as a contest it could end today. Brian Lara's talented side will have gained confidence from their victories over England in the recent one-day series but they remain a fragile outfit and how they fare this morning at Lord's will have a significant impact on the series.
Should the West Indies bat first and post a score in excess of 450 this could be a close and entertaining five weeks. But if England were to dismiss their opponents for under 200 one can see this series following the same pattern as that in the Caribbean four months ago, when Michael Vaughan's side walloped their hosts 3-0.
England looked a disorganised and desperate bunch during the NatWest series but they are a completely different proposition in their whites. The loss of Mark Butcher, who failed to recover from the whiplash injury he sustained in a car crash on Monday and the inability of Andrew Flintoff to bowl over the coming five days are major blows, but the presence of Graham Thorpe in the middle order and the fact that Vaughan can bowl Stephen Harmison for as long as he wants give England experience, class and the sharpest cutting edge in world cricket.
"Butch is a massive loss," Vaughan said yesterday. "He has been our most consistent batter for the last two years. But you always say that one player's loss in another's gain and as at the beginning of the summer, when I missed a Test match here and Andrew Strauss took the opportunity, it is now exactly the same for Robert Key."
Even without Butcher England's batsmen should score the runs they require to put their opponents under pressure. The West Indies bowlers are raw and inconsistent and they will offer Vaughan and his colleagues plenty of scoring opportunities.
Fidel Edwards and Jermaine Lawson are out of form and the tourists could well enter this match with two specialist fast-bowlers - Tino Best and Pedro Collins - two seaming all-rounders - Dwayne Smith and Dwayne Bravo - and an off-spinner, Omari Banks. This attack will give the West Indian batting line-up great depth and make it difficult for England to bowl Lara's side out cheaply.
Flintoff's ankle injury creates a huge problem because it prevents England from entering this Test match with five bowlers. A good weather forecast will ensure the selectors retain Ashley Giles and the three remaining places will be filled by Harmison, Matthew Hoggard and James Anderson.
"Freddie is another big blow," admitted Vaughan. "Throughout last winter we played four fast-bowlers in each match and on each occasion two of them performed. We just hope that two out of the three will come to the party. The pitch looks good and it is the team which plays the best cricket which usually wins here. We will decide on our bowling attack when we see the overhead conditions in the morning.
"The one-day series did not go very well but there is a good buzz about the Test team. Everyone knows their roles and it is down to the guys to relive those memories of the New Zealand white-wash and continue from where we left off."
Conventional swing or reverse swing will help sway the selectors' final decision. If the weather is overcast they are likely to lean towards Anderson but if they feel the pitch is going to scuff the ball up Simon Jones could get the nod. If, however, it is sunny and the pitch true Anderson's greater control should gain him his first Test cap of 2004.
It will be Harmison though, who Vaughan uses to reopen the wounds which were ruthlessly inflicted earlier this year. It was in the Caribbean where the Durham paceman became the world's premier fast bowler and his hostility was too much for batsmen that have supposedly been brought up on a diet of quality quick stuff.
In the West Indies and during the series that followed against New Zealand, Harmison was outstanding. His 44 wickets have enabled England to win six of their last seven Test matches and have bumped him up to second in the world rankings. This week Harmison has the opportunity to overtake Muttiah Muralitharan and become the first England bowler since Ian Botham in 1980 to top the list - four or five wickets at a cost close to his career average of 24 is all it would take.
Lara, predictably, is the main man. When he scores runs the West Indies are a competitive side. But when he fails panic seems to spread through his team and, therefore, he will be the player England aim for.
The world's leading batsman will not be short of motivation. The West Indies have not won at Lord's for 16 years and Lara, like the other great bastman of the last decade, Sachin Tendulkar, is yet to score a Test century at the home of cricket. In the two Tests the West Indian captain has played here he has scored one fifty and three single-figure scores and this is likely to be his last chance.
Lara realises that Harmison is the main threat but suggested that England are too dependant on their spearhead. "Harmison is a very good bowler," he said. "But it is nice for us to see that it is he who England turn to every single time. Because of this I am not sure he is going to last the entire summer and I don't know whether England have a plan B.
"We realise that he has taken double the wickets of the other bowlers but when you play against a guy a lot you become accustomed to playing him and I am expecting our players to adapt to his style of bowling."
ENGLAND (probable): M P Vaughan (Yorkshire, capt), M E Trescothick (Somerset), A J Strauss (Middlesex), R W T Key (Kent), G P Thorpe (Surrey), A Flintoff (Lancashire), G O Jones (Kent, wkt), A F Giles (Warwickshire), M J Hoggard (Yorkshire), J M Anderson (Lancashire), S J Harmison (Durham).
WEST INDIES (probable): BC Lara (capt), CH Gayle, DS Smith, RR Sarwan, S Chanderpaul, DJJ Bravo, DR Smith, RD Jacobs (wkt), OAC Banks, TL Best, PT Collins.Reuse content