Lord's enjoys the day but fears tomorrow

Victory in Barbados would cheer a beleaguered leadership facing storms both at home and abroad
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The Independent Online

These are days of wine and roses for English cricket. The next two weeks may witness a kind of apotheosis. Thousands of fans will mount a friendly invasion of Barbados and Antigua, hoping to watch a clean sweep in the Test series.

These are days of wine and roses for English cricket. The next two weeks may witness a kind of apotheosis. Thousands of fans will mount a friendly invasion of Barbados and Antigua, hoping to watch a clean sweep in the Test series.

The prospect that the deeds of this team could lead to still greater achievement was given more substance even as the victories sank in. Back home, the England and Wales Cricket Board were beginning to consider revolutionary proposals to change the county game, based on reducing the number of Championship matches from 16 to 12, and ensuring that the best players compete against each other by changing promotion and relegation to one-up, one down.

Put together, England's uplifting performances and the fact that administrators have dared to propose radical change offer cause for optimism. But there are spectres at the feast. The professional game in this country is in imminent danger of being engulfed by the issue that has come to dominate it and will shortly concentrate the minds of world cricket. Zimbabwe is a small country far away but it has been perched on English cricket's shoulder, pricking at its conscience and its wallet for two years.

Last week, even as the victory in Trinidad was being relished and the Domestic Structure Review Group were disseminating their proposals the England and Wales Cricket Board were fearfully aware of the threat they face. The monthly management board meeting heard a report from the ECB chairman, David Morgan, about the ICC executive meeting in Auckland two weeks ago.

The decision about whether to make the tour of Zimbabwe this season was, as anticipated, delayed again. It may well not be taken until May, so far from making a quick and graceful withdrawal - as had been their plan - the ECB stand accused once more of prevarication and self-interest. Pull out of their scheduled tour to Zimbabwe this autumn and the ECB know that they will be heavily fined and probably suspended by the ECB. A fine of, say, £1m would not quite be ruinous but it would cost the jobs of administrators, coaches and players.

A suspension would be catastrophic and although the ECB think that the ICC would fall short of such punishment, they may be misreading the feeling against them. Since England are standing alone (and taking their time in doing so while they hedge their bets) and since they promised Zimbabwe that they would make the tour, the other full members of the ICC may have had quite enough.

The ECB's official line remains that they have not yet made a decision, but to declare that they intend to make the tour, against government advice, would bring opprobrium from other areas, both left and right. The pressures to take a moral stance against the Robert Mugabe regime would burgeon.

Their only hope of getting off the hook - and you can be sure that their senior officials are on a rota to pray about it every night - is that the Government issue a straightforward instruction: "Don't Go." That would persuade the ICC to withdraw threats.

This is casting a deep gloom over Lord's that the victories of Michael Vaughan's men could barely pierce. Amid it all, the counties have been furnished with a set of wide-ranging proposals to change county cricket. They are so revolutionary that the date for presentation of a paper by the Review Group has been postponed to July.

The group have asked the counties to consider a system of 12 games a season, based on playing four teams home and away and the four others home or away. They are also suggesting a quasi-merger of the Championship and one-day leagues so that the teams in the two divisions would be the same in both forms of the game. This would be arrived at by combining the points systems, probably giving more weight to a Championship win. They also want the best players to play against each other and to ensure that is likely to happen propose reducing the scope for promotion and relegation.

"The trouble is that the counties get it in the neck for not raising enough revenue of our own and relying on the fee payment from the ECB," said Peter Anderson, chief executive of Somerset. "Well, we raise revenue by playing cricket and playing 24 days' Championship cricket a year won't help us to do that. We have to support the English team, of course we must, and do, but our job is to provide professional cricket. As for the importance of two distinctly separate divisions and less chance of promotion to ensure quality, I know that the two bowlers doing the damage in the West Indies [Steve Harmison and Simon Jones] are both from the second division."

England cannot immerse themselves for the moment in these concerns. The Zimbabwean issue will come to haunt them soon enough. Their immediate task in Barbados is to win their third successive Test which would be their fifth consecutive victory in all against the West Indies, a statistic which would have been unthinkable five years ago.

The venue provides West Indies with slender hope. They were impregnable in Bridgetown, remaining unbeaten there between 1935 and 1993, which embraced 27 matches. But they have lost the most recent two and will need an iron will, a feature so far well concealed, to pull themselves up now.

England should be wary of excessive confidence. The most reliable yardstick of their progress is not to assess their West Indies results but to compare their performances in Sri Lanka (two defensive draws and a bad defeat) with Australia's current tour (wrapped up the series with attacking batsmanship in two matches). Joy, although widespread, should not be unconfined. It could be overwhelmed by another emotion altogether.

The New-Look Season

* Each county to play 12 first-class games per season rather than 16.

* Promotion and relegation to be one-up, one-down.

* The two divisions for the Championship and one-day league to be made up of the same sides. * Points to be scored in both forms of the game.

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