Fresh faces have to learn on the job

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It has been Generation Next, as the soft drink company that uses their promotional images describes them, that has buttressed the West Indies' effort over the first three days in the First Test.

The left-handers Devon Smith, 22, and Ryan Hinds, 23, both returning for their fifth Test, checked England on the opening day after the back of the batting ­ Chris Gayle, Ramnaresh Sarwan, Brian Lara and Shivnarine Chanderpaul ­ had been all but broken.

Fidel Edwards and Tino Best, also in their early 20s, encouraged optimism that the prolonged wait for a new crop of fast, aggressive bowlers to preserve a proud West Indian legacy is coming to an end. Edwards is playing his eighth Test, his 12th first-class match. It is Best's second Test.

They are all part of the concentrated search deliberately undertaken by the new selection panel, appointed under Sir Viv Richards last year. In that time, the former captain and his colleagues have introduced nine players under 22 to Test cricket.

The problem is that all have had to learn on the job. It has been an understandable challenge for young players with limited first-class experience who, unlike Richards and the majority of those who comprised the all-conquering teams under Clive Lloyd, no longer have the benefit of the professional finishing school that is the English county championship.

Smith and Hinds had the grooming of the restricted domestic competition, in which there are a maximum of nine first-class matches a season, and international cricket at Under-19 and A team level. Neither Edwards, picked last season after a solitary first-class match on the evidence of his net bowling, or Best had age-group or A team experience. They, like the others, soon discovered the wide gap they have to bridge before they can establish themselves as true Test players.

Edwards had five wickets in his first two Tests. The going then got tough in South Africa, where he had to contend with quality batsmen on run-filled pitches. In his only previous Test, against the ruthless Australians, Best encountered a pitch described by Steve Waugh as the slowest he had played on and went wicketless.

The transition has been just as difficult for the other newcomers, often compounded by injury and, in the case of Jermaine Lawson, a bowler of similar pace to Edwards and Best, an action that has required remedial attention.

A season in county cricket, with its almost daily round of matches and professional demands, would benefit them all. But, for a host of reasons, that avenue is all but closed. In its absence, the West Indies Cricket Board established an academy three years ago. Hinds, Smith and Edwards are all graduates. It introduced an Under-23 "development" team into its first-class tournament in 2000. It is not a process that guarantees returns. A host of teenaged Test cricketers are now satisfying themselves with club cricket. Remember Hasan Raza, the youngest of all at 14 years, 227 days, or Aftab Baloch or Vijay Mehra? Perhaps not.

The Australians, who set the pattern for so much in the game at present, are careful not to expose their players to Test cricket without proper grounding. The youngest member of the team that completed their latest miracle in Galle last week was 27. Michael Clarke, 23 next month, would long since have been a West Indian Test player. He is yet to play for Australia, who are first properly blooding him in one-day internationals.

It is not an option open to West Indies at the moment.