It is a proposition commonly acknowledged that Duncan Fletcher is the best coach England have had. During his stewardship, England have won seven Test series out of 16, and only two out of the last six, against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh when any other outcome would have prompted a lengthy visit from the Anti-Corruption Unit.
Given this sort of form, it can only be wondered what state the team would be in with a lesser man in charge. The series against West Indies that begins this week in Jamaica is an important one for Fletcher and his perceived status. It is obvious that England have a considerable opportunity to win their first rubber in the Caribbean for 36 years, and there is a growing belief that the coach ought to start delivering victories rather than occasionally musing on the exciting prospects ahead.
Make no mistake, if Sven Goran Eriksson had achieved Fletcher's results, the barbaric calls for his head would have reached such a pitch that he would probably be contemplating life at the helm of a Stockholm pub team.
It is in Fletcher's favour that his players - or at least those he sticks with - to a man, speak highly of him. His captain, Michael Vaughan, never fails to mention how much Fletcher has helped to advance his game. And if the coach is primarily a batting technician, his bowlers are not short of praise for his pastoral care.
Individual attention to detail is all well and good, but at least part of a coach's job is to make a team greater than the sum of their parts. Under Fletcher, England have frequently played dogged cricket, but the attritional approach never stirred hearts for long. The most recent series in Sri Lanka was a case in point. There were two staunch draws but they were followed by woeful defeat. Fletcher's England do not have to be examined too closely to see that there has not been, by and large, much sense of adventure. In a way, Sri Lanka indicated that England's cricket reflects their coach: there might be a lot going on underneath but you never get the feeling that it is about to break into a smile. Buster Keaton would have approved.
England have six series before their next attempt to regain the Ashes in the summer of 2005, five if they pull out of the Zimbabwe trip in October. If they played Australia this week they would not have a prayer, but against the current West Indian side they probably start as slight favourites. Or it may be even stephens - so it would be timely for Harmison of that ilk to tilt the balance.
The opening salvos in Kingston will probably be crucial to the way the four-match series unfolds. West Indies' confidence is brittle after their recent hammering in South Africa, England's has no right to be in a much better state after their lacklustre performance in Sri Lanka.
The composition of the squads suggests that the first match and every match thereafter will be decided by the team who bowl least poorly. Both will field attacks still bedding down to the harsh business of Test cricket against batsmen who will fancy their chances.
But for the home side, recent history might be a burden rather than a spur. Their fledgling fast bowlers, particularly, must perform in the shadow of greatness. A production line of speed merchants which yielded only Rolls-Royces for 20 years appears to have started turning out Trabants. The bowling in South Africa lacked direction in every sense.
There is some scope for optimism. Fidel Edwards' sling-like action will surprise some when he gets his fuller length on target. If Jermaine Lawson's dodgy action has been rectified, his bounce will give the hurry-up to England's finest. But Lawson will not be in Jamaica and England should have no overt cause for concern.
Then there is England's attack. This should be their moment, the time for the young speedsters in whom so much faith and effort has been invested to begin justifying the compliments. Several notes of caution should be sounded. Harmison has only twice in his 12 Tests looked of better calibre than fast but wayward, but at least they were the last two.
Simon Jones's long spell out of the game after his horrific injury may perversely work in his favour, for he will be fresh and his other bodily parts will not have been put under sustained duress. His ability to swing the ball at pace may be instrumental but still, he is a lad with one- and-a-bit Test matches' experience. The order is as tall for him as a Trinidadian pina colada.
Presumably, both James Anderson and Matthew Hoggard will have their chances, but for control at one end against batting which can still be rampant in a traditional West Indian way, England will be reliant on Andrew Flintoff and the left-arm spin of Ashley Giles. The way in which Giles has quietly ignored criticism (look, it is not exactly his fault that he is the best spinner in the country) has been commendable, and he has also amended his delivery. He might also not be averse to the West Indies' left-handers.
No West Indies side will relish being the first since 1968 to be beaten in a home series by England. Brian Lara, their captain, has made it plain that he has no desire to be overturned by the "old colonial master". Lara, you simply know, is set to score a zillion. But there was clear concern in his point. A young, worried side might wilt under expectation.
It is away from home that West Indian fragility has been most exposed, and they have won only against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe in 13 tours. At home, they are stronger but far from impregnable, having lost three of the last five series.
England will be aware that the opposition are capable of rousing deeds; witness the record 418 they made to defeat Australia as recently as last May. At least it should be close. For England to win they probably have to take the lead early. But if they come home without the Wisden Trophy let us hope that it can be declared that Vaughan's England, coached by old stoneface, played exciting cricket.
England under Vaughan and Fletcher
31 July-3 Aug 2003: v South Africa, Lord's. Lost by an innings and 92 runs
14-18 Aug: v South Africa, Trent Bridge. Won by 70 runs
21-25 Aug: v South Africa, Headingley. Lost by 191 runs
4-8 Sep: v South Africa, The Oval. Won by 9 wkts
21-25 Oct: v Bangladesh, Dhaka. Won by 7 wkts
29 Oct-1 Nov: v Bangladesh, Chittagong. Won by 329 runs
2-6 Dec: v Sri Lanka, Galle. Match drawn
10-14 Dec: v Sri Lanka, Kandy. Match drawn
18-21 Dec: v Sri Lanka, Colombo. Lost by an innings and 215 runs
Overall record: P9. W4. L3. D2
Fletcher's Test record: P55. W21. L19. D15
Fletcher's ODI record: P84. W40. L41. NR3
17 June, 2003: v Pakistan, Old Trafford. Lost by 2 wkts
29 June: v Pakistan, The Oval. Won by 7 wkts
22 June: v Pakistan, Lord's. Won by 4 wkts
26 June: v Zimbabwe, Trent Bridge. Lost by 4 wkts
1 July: v Zimbabwe, Headingley. No result
3 July: v South Africa, Old Trafford. Lost by 7 wkts
6 July: v Zimbabwe, Bristol. Won by 6 wkts
8 July: v South Africa, Edgbaston. Won by 4 wkts
12 July: v South Africa, Lord's. Won by 7 wkts
7 Nov: v Bangladesh, Chittagong. Won by 7 wkts
10 Nov: v Bangladesh, Dhaka. Won by 7 wkts
12 Nov: v Bangladesh, Dhaka. Won by 7 wkts
18 Nov: v Sri Lanka, Dambulla. Lost by 10 wkts
Overall record: P13. W8. L4. NR1Reuse content