All England tours are important. Some are more important than others. Back in the day they had a missionary element, helping to give succour to the game in needy corners; lately they have tended primarily to meet the dull requirements of the Future Tours Programme which, given the ineptitude of the International Cricket Council's fixtures policy, is sometimes the same thing.
Occasionally, they go beyond mere sport, as witnessed by the return to India shortly before Christmas in the wake of the Mumbai terrorist attacks. And now there is the tour of the West Indies on which the squad, led by the new captain, Andrew Strauss, embark tomorrow.
In a purely cricketing sense, playing the West Indies in the Caribbean – or anywhere else – is not what it was. The team have been mediocre for years, the administrators have been worse and the crowds have contracted the inertia. That, in its own way, has enhanced the fascination: when will these cricketers reclaim their birthright?
But it is on England that all eyes will be focused in the following days and weeks. Never mind the cricket. How is Andrew Flintoff getting on with Kevin Pietersen? Is there is a split in the team between north and south, posh and rough, bowlers and batsmen? Can Strauss, the newly installed leader, cope?
The answers to these questions are probably, in order: Fine, No and Yes (with the rider that there is a natural suspicion of bowlers for batsmen and vice versa in any dressing room, high or low). But the sensational events of a fortnight ago, which culminated in the effective sacking of both the captain, Pietersen, and the coach, Peter Moores, will not be allowed to recede easily simply because England insist that they are now all pals together.
It was not widely known, for instance, that relations between Pietersen and Moores had reached such a low ebb that they could not work with each other again. In those circumstances, it is natural for outsiders to begin to look for other cracks in the carapace.
The likelihood is that in Strauss the selectors have found the right man for the right time. No captain can be all things to all men and those who try will almost certainly fail, but there is a disarming directness and thoughtfulness about Strauss that suggest he can pull together the disparate components.
This is not to denigrate Pietersen, whose character and temperament in the first week of this month were put under scrutiny that would have been matched only by Sigmund Freud but without the expertise. The annals of cod psychology are already stuffed but here is an addition.
Pietersen, being the man he is, will go back to the ranks and will make it his business to make his demotion a strength and to score, as Strauss put it, millions of runs in the West Indies. Maybe Pietersen, because he expects such high standards of himself, made the classic error of perfectionists by expecting them of others less gifted.
If the depth of the ill feeling in the dressing room was overstated, it would be folly for Strauss and his advisers, chiefly the estimable assistant coach, Andy Flower, to pretend it did not exist. Circumstantial and anecdotal evidence should never by itself confirm a case but sufficient examples have emerged in the past fortnight to suggest that there was some pronounced discomfort.
Students of body language will have a ball in the next few weeks. If a player puts his arm round the shoulders of a team-mate, might that be interpreted as over-compensation to disguise dislike? What larks.
Strauss is equipped to deal with this within the team. But there exists the potential for further discord which will also not go away. Much is rightly made of how the system of central contracts, introduced nine years ago, has helped to improve both the lot and the standard of the England cricketer. He still has to work too hard for his corn but that apart it has been a jolly good thing.
But the contracts for this year, running from last September, remain unsigned. The bone of contention is the Indian Premier League and the participation of England's star players in it. Given England's deplorably overcrowded programme in the next year – two series against the West Indies home and away, the World Twenty20, a series of seven one-day matches against Australia, the Champions Trophy, a tour of South Africa, a tour of Pakistan – it is a wonder that anybody will have any energy to play in a club tournament on the subcontinent. Oh and the Ashes is apparently to be squeezed into that list as well.
However, the IPL is so alluring, so popular and so well rewarded that England's players are bound to want to have a bash at it. Why should they desist when every other top player from every other country in the world has been enlisted? The England and Wales Cricket Board has patently failed to address this issue with the seriousness that it demands. If it now overshadows a tour whose harmony has already been threatened, it can be considered a disgrace, another blot on an ECB escutcheon which is becoming overcrowded.
England should have enough nous and talent to beat the West Indies in the four-match Test series, though the series of five one-dayers which follows could be a different matter. The first test of Strauss's specific assessment of cricketing issues will come early. He has to decide whether Ian Bell will continue in the side in the prestigious No 3 position.
He (and Flower as the other permanent tour selector, probably with national selector Geoff Miller early on) must also decide whether Stephen Harmison makes an immediate return to the team after being dropped in India and whether Graeme Swann is the sole spinner ahead of Monty Panesar. England will presumably want a five-man attack because that is the only way in which they can beat Australia in the summer. There is also Ryan Sidebottom to consider and if he hits the ground running his left-arm swing will carry many votes.
The forthcoming series may not be as arduous as the Ashes are bound to be, but it is crucial in helping Strauss find the correct balance and rhythm so that he can take the team forward in the next year or so. The hunch is that Harmison will come back and that Panesar will drop out. Swann did absolutely nothing wrong in India. Sidebottom's rough would be a useful ally to his off-spin as well.
Bell is a conundrum. By now, he should not only be a fixture in the team but on the verge of greatness. That he has achieved the first without remotely beginning to approach the other is putting the first in jeopardy. The man who has been waiting and waiting and waiting for an opportunity is Owais Shah, a man whose every nook and cranny as a batsman Strauss will know from their formative times at Middlesex.
It will be a big call for Strauss to include his county colleague, perhaps a bigger one to leave him out. Bell is indubitably a class act – watch his sublime timing – but the right stuff is not only about class alone and one fifty in his last 10 innings would test the patience of Job, if not selectors for whom loyalty appears to be enshrined in the constitution.
England cannot afford to be casual. West Indies remain at rock bottom but they demonstrate flashes of genius still. If they can ally that to the rigid discipline it takes over five days of Test cricket (that same stricture has applied so often to weak England teams) they could fashion a win against a distracted squad.
In Shiv Chanderpaul they possess one of the wonders of the age. In 13 Test matches played during 2007 and 2008 he has averaged 104, with six hundreds and 10 fifties in 23 innings. It has been a remarkably sustained exhibition of stoicism and excellence in the face of adversity which has yielded seven losses and four draws. Chanderpaul has been painstakingly imperturbable throughout. If he continues in this vein then, who knows, his colleagues may yet be inspired.
Nor should it be forgotten that, despite all the hosts' current woes, England have won there only three times in 13 tours. When they won in 2004 it was their first victory in 36 years. But they know as they set out that if they come back with anything other than a fourth Test series victory in the Caribbean something will have gone dreadfully wrong.
Caribbean Scene: England touring party
A J Strauss (Middx, capt), T R Ambrose (Warks), J M Anderson (Lancs), I R Bell (Warks), S C J Broad (Notts), P D Collingwood (Durham), A N Cook (Essex), A Flintoff (Lancs), S J Harmison (Durham), M S Panesar (Northants), K P Pietersen (Hants), M J Prior (Sussex), A U Rashid (Yorks), O A Shah (Middx), R J Sidebottom, G P Swann (both Notts).
*ONE DAY SQUAD
Same as Test, except R S Bopara (Essex), S M Davies (Worcs), A D Mascarenhas (Hants), S R Patel (Notts) in for T R Ambrose, A N Cook, M S Panesar and A U Rashid.
Three to watch: Angus Fraser's make-or-break tour guide
*Stephen Harmison It was on England's last Test tour of the Caribbean, in March/April 2004, that Harmison highlighted his enormous potential as a fast bowler, taking 7 for 12 against West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica. The performance instigated a golden period in which he took 61 wickets in 11 Tests. In his last 16 Test appearances Harmison has taken 43 wickets at an average of almost 48. Such figures would have resulted in most selection committees looking elsewhere, but there are very few bowlers possessing Harmison's potential and the selectors continue to believe he can reproduce the displays of five years ago. Such faith will end if Harmison fails to perform over the coming weeks.
*Ian Bell There are many who feel that Bell was fortunate to be selected on England's tour of the Caribbean, and he is not guaranteed selection in the first Test. Middlesex's Owais Shah could well be picked ahead of him. Nobody doubts Bell's potential and he remains one of the most gifted and elegant batsmen in English cricket. But ultimately it is performances on the field that count, and England's No 3 has not delivered as often as required. In 45 appearances he has yet to score the first England hundred of a Test, a statistic that suggests he does not dictate the direction in which a game moves. In his last 10 Test innings he has scored just 181 runs, figures that are just not good enough for the man occupying a team's most important batting position.
*Monty Panesar The presence of Adil Rashid in the seat next to Panesar – seating arrangements on England flights tend to be done alphabetically – should be enough to inform England's premier spinner that his place is under threat. The West Indies is a destination where fast bowlers used to dominate but England, in Panesar, Rashid and Graeme Swann, are taking three spinners. The West Indies offer Panesar the chance to improve his declining reputation. The hosts are not great players of spin and in the four Tests against them he has taken 23 wickets at an average of 18. The presence of Andrew Strauss as captain should help him. No England captain has bowled Panesar more in Test cricket than Strauss.Reuse content