Harmison delivers to beat West Indies at their own game

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The Independent Online

England achieved their historic victory in the Caribbean through beating the West Indies at their own game. At the start of this series Brian Lara's side believed their batters and bowlers would be better suited to the quick, bouncy pitches than Michael Vaughan's. And with this in mind they instructed the groundsmen to produce surfaces containing these characteristics.

The tactic backfired. The West Indies overestimated the ability of their batsman and underestimated the hostility of England's bowling attack. In the first three Tests they were simply blown away by a group of bowlers who took it in turn to wreak havoc. These games followed a similar format to many of the one-sided encounters which took place between these two sides in the Eighties and early Nineties. There was, however, one difference. On this occasion it was the tall bowlers with a pale complexion who were dominating proceedings.

It was only at the final Test in Antigua, on the type of pitch which is generally found in the region these days - slow and low - that the home side began to put England under pressure. Lara's world record score of 400 and the West Indies' first-innings score of 751 for 5 made a mockery of what had taken place before. If the entire series had been played on surfaces as docile as this we may well have witnessed the close contest everybody had been predicting.

Stephen Harmison was the most influential player of the series and his 23 wickets were the principle reason for England's success. The Durham paceman arrived in the Caribbean with a lot to prove. Before Christmas the 25 year old had failed to enamour himself to his team-mates when he departed home early from England's tour of Bangladesh with a back injury.

In Asia, after hearing reports that Harmison was not doing all he could to get himself fit for the three Test tour of Sri Lanka, several of England's senior players began to question his commitment and suggested that he should not walk straight back into the side. Fortunately, England's selectors ignored their moaning and picked the lanky speedster. And it did not take long before his team-mates were patting, rather than knifing, his back.

Though Harmison picked up the early wicket of Chris Gayle on the morning of the first Test, nobody would have forecast the carnage he would create three days later. On the fourth morning, however, everything clicked. No one has doubted Harmison's talent, but before this outstanding spell of fast-bowling few felt he could get every aspect of his game together at once. In an 11-over spell Harmison bowled like Curtley Ambrose in his pomp and the West Indian batsmen could do nothing about it.

The bounce Harmison extracted from the pitch made him unplayable. He took 7 for 12 and the West Indies were bowled out for 47, their lowest Test score. England knocked off the 20 runs they needed and waltzed into a 1-0 lead.

The scars from the first Test appeared to be healing nicely at the Queen's Park Oval when the West Indian openers put on 100 runs for the first wicket. But then Harmison produced another wonderful spell of bowling in which he took 3 for 2 in 11 balls. The most important of his wickets was Lara, who fended a short ball off his nose to gully. To see their star dismissed in such a brutal way completely undermined the West Indies and they collapsed to 208 all-out.

Whilst it was England's pace bowlers who essentially won this series, the batting of Mark Butcher, Nasser Hussain and Graham Thorpe should not be underestimated. Each used the experience of playing here in the past wisely. Their gritty batting was seldom pretty to watch, but it helped England out of the mire in Jamaica and here in Trinidad.

In the West Indies second innings, Simon Jones showed his potential and took his first five-wicket haul in Test cricket. For the third innings in a row the West Indies collapsed and an even contest was turned into a stroll. This victory allowed England to retain the Wisden Trophy.

The circus then moved to Barbados. Playing at the Kensington Oval, with 80 per cent of the crowd supporting England, must have felt like a home game for Vaughan's side. The match followed exactly the same format as the previous two. Andrew Flintoff claimed his first five-wicket haul for England in the West Indies' first innings, before Thorpe completed a magnificent century.

With the match again evenly poised, Matthew Hoggard then became the 10th Englishman to take a hat-trick. Amid amazing scenes, England romped home to an eight-wicket victory and sealed their first series win in the Caribbean since 1968.

This was nothing less than England deserved. Since travelling to Bangladesh in October, England's players have trained and practised hard and this success is a reward for their commitment. This investment has kept the bowlers fit and the batsmen sharp. England's ground fielding has been excellent and their catching has been far better than that of their opponents.

Before the fourth Test the only thing missing from this series - from an England supporter's point of view - was a major innings from Brian Charles Lara. After three disastrous Tests Lara was desperate for a big innings, but nobody could have predicted he would go on to reclaim the world record he had lost six months earlier.

This was a better innings than the 375 in 1994. Ten years ago batting for this period of time was a new and exciting experience for Lara. But to show the desire and discipline to go there for the second time is one of the most remarkable achievements in sport.

This innings helped raise the spirits of the region. The West Indies have been thumped here, but there are signs of a brighter future. The Test records of several batsmen show they can bat and their bowling during this series has been very good. At the moment they lack discipline and confidence and if they can find some of this in the next two months we may well have a closer and equally exciting series between these two teams this summer.