England should savour the moment of their historic victory in the Caribbean, but its enduring worth remains puzzling. Plenty of clues have been scattered in the past four weeks, offering cause for optimism, but the mystery will not finally be solved for another 18 months.
That is when - you guessed it - the next series against Australia will have been decided. As far as English cricket is concerned, all roads lead to the Ashes. History has something to do with that, but it is also because Australia provide the yardstick by which all other nations must be measured.
If there was a slight suggestion of weariness in Duncan Fletcher's voice the other day it was tempered by comprehension. He might have liked to enjoy for a little longer the 3-0 series victory against West Indies, rounded off by a draw which demanded a professional maturity that England have not always found easy to come by. But Fletcher, as it were, knew the score.
When he was asked what the win meant in Australian terms, he said: "We have got closer, we are improving all the time so we have got to be getting closer. How close is subjective. You only know when you play them. We're getting there, but there's still room for improvement. We can improve in all facets of the game by working hard, and hopefully that is the attitude they [the players] take. Other-wise we will go backwards."
With that reply, then, the mystery deepened. Fletcher recognised the need to dampen his ardour. Recent results supply a vague guideline. Australia also won the first three Tests in the Caribbean on their last visit a year ago, but lost the fourth. In Sri Lanka recently, they exhibited characteristic qualities by winning all three matches after conceding a first-innings lead, whereas England eventually lost there naïvely and feebly last year.
But this is a different England. In Stephen Harmison (and to a lesser extent, for the moment, Simon Jones) their dreams are coming true. Throughout Nasser Hussain's captaincy, he frequently referred to the necessity in modern big cricket of possessing menacing pace or puzzling, unorthodox spin. The latter remains merely an English desire, but Harmison has arrived in the former category.
It has taken him four years to become an overnight success. He took 23 wickets in the series, four fewer than John Snow managed in four matches for the last England side to win in the Caribbean 36 years ago (which is a measure, incidentally, of Snow's stature and no slight at all on Harmison).
As Fletcher pointed out, Harmison was giving the hurry-up to Brian Lara last week when the batsman had 200 on his way to his record 400. There was no period in that epic innings when Lara looked like being out, but with an old ball, Harmison gave him several troubling moments, beating him and hitting the bat hard.
Harmison has now worked out his own game and under-stands it. When things are not going as they might he is aware enough to do the things that work, to get back, as Fletcher said, to a basic trigger point.
Harmison is the most exciting English fast bowler for a generation, and the selectors perhaps had little option but to pick him for the seven-match one-day series that begins in Guyana today. He has yet to learn how to play one-day cricket properly. So precious has he become that there was an equal case for sending him home to put his feet up until shortly before 20 May, when the First Test starts against New Zealand.
His place for the one-dayers, which do not finish until 5 May, might profitably have gone to Jones, who lacks bowling. Jones is at the stage where Harmison was a mere eight months ago: he has to learn his game.
To do that, he also needs more bowling, having had over a year off after his horrific knee injury. "He has played so little cricket, and some days you are going to think, 'Is this guy as good as we thought he was?'," Fletcher said.
A couple of those days occurred in Antigua last week when, on a flat pitch, Jones was carted long before Lara came in. He had no tricks up his sleeve, but he is a deserving recipient of one of the four additional central contracts awarded after the Test. (So is Harmison, and it beggars belief now that he was not on the original list).
The time is right for Troy Cooley, the infectiously enthusiastic and knowledgeable fast-bowling coach, to give Jones serious, single-minded attention. The remaining contracts were handed to Matthew Hoggard, the other specialist seamer, and Graham Thorpe, now firmly back in the fold. Thorpe's quiet authority at the crease has demonstrated time and again what England were missing for a year.
Assuming that there are no injuries, which is wholly unreasonable, the selectors' roles early in the season will involve only talent-spotting for the future. The team for the First Test against the Kiwis could be written on the back of chairman David Graveney's discarded fag packet now.
Ah, the Kiwis, or the Clear Black Caps, or whatever they are called these days. England will hardly have had time to give them a second thought before arriving at Lord's. But New Zealand, fresh from a successful summer at home on surfaces not entirely dissimilar to English pitches, will have had three weeks on tour.
They will be, as ever, greater than the sum of their parts, and Fletcher has gone out of his way to mention how much better prepared than England they will be also. This is what is known in the trade as getting your excuses in first. It goes only so far, of course.
True, England have just played on a pitch that would have the Flat Earth Society scratching their heads at the realisation that such flatness existed, and Headingley in late May will resemble it only in the sense that the same sport is being played on it. But to suggest that 11 Englishmen are not accustomed to home conditions is disingenuous.
England may lose to New Zealand, and if they do the value of their splendid victory in the Caribbean will be put in a new light, some of which could then be shed on how close they are to Australia.
TEN PEAKS AND TROUGHS
Devon Smith, from Grenada, one of the Caribbean's lesser-known cricketing hotspots, makes a maiden century, suggesting a tight, high-scoring series lies ahead.
West Indies are all out for 47 in 25.3 overs, their lowest ever total (by four runs).
They are blown away by Stephen Harmison in a remarkably hostile spell of 12.3-8-12-7.
Tino Best takes his first Test wicket (Graham Thorpe), prompting an unforgettably frenetic celebration.
After a year out Simon Jones returns with the wicket of Brian Lara - and in the Second Test takes his first five-wicket haul.
Wicketkeeper Ridley Jacobs is sent in at No 4, ahead of Brian Lara on his home ground - for tactical reasons.
In his 32nd Test, the third of the series, Andrew Flintoff takes his first five-wicket haul in an innings, the third England bowler of the series to do so.
Matthew Hoggard takes a hat-trick - Sarwan, Chanderpaul, Hinds - the 34th in Tests and 10th for England. West Indies all out for 94.
West Indies' 751 for 5 is the highest total conceded by England in 820 Tests, as Lara and Jacobs break the team's sixth-wicket record in the Fourth Test.
Lara scores a world-record 400no from 528 balls in 12hr 57min. England save the Test.Reuse content