England v West Indies
Expectation for Vaughan, hope for Lara
Home side's momentum and experience against visitors' youth, enthusiasm and a legend
How different it all is. Twenty years ago, when West Indies played a Test series in this country everybody assumed that the home side would lose. This summer, nobody believes that the tourists can win.
Then, the scoreline was the only doubt, and by the end of a five-match series England were probably grateful to get out with a 5-0 defeat and only two injured batsmen who never played again - who now remembers Andy Lloyd, hit on the head, and Paul Terry, broken arm? There are only four matches this summer - another reflection of changing times - and it is certain that there will be no blackwash. If 4-0 to England is unlikely, it is not in the realms of fantasy.
"We are not good enough to take our foot off the pedal against any opposition," said David Graveney, the chairman of selectors, yesterday. "So we have got to play well." So they must, but the West Indies side who will take the field at Lord's on Thursday are raw and inexperienced, long on potential but short, desperately short, on confidence, discipline and nous. It is possible that their time will come, but that time is patently not in England in 2004.
When England's selectors met on Friday in Birmingham, the gathering lasted for nearly four hours. It took around 10 minutes to discuss the squad for the First Test, including cover for injuries, and some three-and-a-half hours to try to nail a winning strategy for the one-day side. If that had to be done, it is still a measure of the fact that England's Test team are settled and have won six of their past seven Tests, three of them without reply in the Caribbean only months ago.
For all that, a series against West Indies remains a thrilling prospect. Only a rubber against Australia has more resonance than the Wisden Trophy. Since 1950, when they won here for the first time, and then in the Sixties and the Eighties, when they produced two of the most attractive, formidable, and in the latter decade plain frightening, sides who have ever existed, they have captured a hold on the British imagination that recent shortcomings have not eroded. They still have players capable of great deeds, one of them a legend of the game. There will be wonderful moments in the next month.
England have serious concerns that Andrew Flintoff's heel injury will render him incapable of bowling. That will alter their balance but not their momentum. They will probably have to get by with four bowlers but Duncan Fletcher, the coach, is at least secure that he now has a team aware of their roles.
"Everyone is performing, from one to 11," said Fletcher. "To be an outstanding side we need another all-rounder. We have two already in Flintoff and Geraint Jones, and with another we'd be 14 playing against 11. That's why Jones is so important, because he's a real quality batsman. If you look at other sides, like the top two, Australia and South Africa, they don't have outstanding wicketkeepers and you still see a few mistakes from their wicketkeepers, but of course you put up with it because of the quality of the batting. Having said that, Jones has kept very well and taken some great catches."
Fletcher is dedicated to finding all-rounders ("Why shouldn't we, with 400 cricketers to pick from?") but if Flintoff is fit only to bat at six, they will be down to one. They should cope against a team with so much to learn so quickly. Nor should they play fast and loose with Flintoff's fitness.
England will name a squad of 13 this morning, with James Anderson and Paul Collingwood probably the extra names. Mark Butcher has a pulled thigh muscle and although he is expected to be fit, his absence at No 3 would give Graveney and Fletcher another conundrum about balance: who to bat at three? Given that the openers would stay the same and that Michael Vaughan would remain at four so soon after moving there, with Graham Thorpe immovable at five, they would have to decide whether Collingwood can bat at three. The likely answer is that they would summon Robert Key.
Whatever combination the tourists pick could be overawed by the occasion: a full house at Lord's, where West Indies have not won in three visits. But Brian Lara's achievements as captain should not be underrated. He was phlegmatic and resigned in the Caribbean, but invariably accommodating and optimistic.
He has received more criticism than any other West Indian cricketer for his style, perhaps more than any cricketer, but much of it is ill-deserved. Lara is devoted to the captaincy and looks willing to carry his young side. No doubt he is a hard taskmaster at times, but the wilful ways of this side would drive the most benign of schoolmasters crazy.
If West Indies are to wrest a win in the series, it will probably be through the speed and weight of Lara's scoring. An order that also includes Ramnaresh Sarwan, Shivnarine Chanderpaul and the outrageously gifted Dwayne Smith is capable of mountainous runs, but they are brittle talents and they must cope with a well-honed attack led by the world's best fast bowler, Stephen Harmison.
Under Vaughan, England are calmer than under Nasser Hussain. The captain is getting tetchy about his relative shortage of runs (or at least being asked about it) but otherwise remains deadly cool. He was also given the unequivocal backing of Graveney and Fletcher to bat where he likes. "It's a tough job, batting, captaining, and the toughest part is dealing with media responsibilities on top of that," said Graveney. "He's remarkable, really."
England should steer a course through the West Indians in front of large crowds. But there will be no respite even after that, for they have three one-day internationals against India and the Champions Trophy after that. At least and at last, they appear now to have decided on what they are doing.
Graveney said that Friday's meeting was among the most constructive and productive he has attended in his time as chairman. They had decided on a one-day strategy and would pick the players to follow it through. This was instead of picking players first.
This means they are likely to be more or less the same players but they will follow a specific gameplan. If a player is injured, he will be replaced by somebody performing an identical role. Presumably the selectors know what this is.
"If we win the World Cup in 2007 and I'm still chairman, which I hope I am because I'm proud to do the job, that meeting on Friday will be seen to be very important," said Graveney.
These are big ifs, but who knows, wishes can come true. Next thing you know, England will win the Ashes. But first, gentlemen, the Wisden Trophy.
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