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Testing battle to keep game alive in the Caribbean

Jimmy Adams' team is not just fighting to protect a long and proud record at The Oval over the next five days.

Jimmy Adams' team is not just fighting to protect a long and proud record at The Oval over the next five days.

Their goal in the final Test is the victory that would not only retain the Wisden Trophy that has been in the West Indies' secure possession since 1973, but also the reputation of West Indies' cricket and its appeal to the youth of the Caribbean.

These have been trying times. The last triumph in an overseas series was five years ago. Until the innings victory in the first Test at Edgbaston, there had been 10 successive defeats abroad, 3-0 in Pakistan in 1997, 5-0 in South Africa a year later and 2-0 in New Zealand last December.

Long gone are the days of the celebrated "blackwashes" and the glory of success wherever they happened to play. The recent record and the stunning collapses at Lord's and Headingley have left a passionate public disillusioned. As England well knows, the young - and the sponsors - want only to be identified with success.

The majority of this team was not born when England last won a series over the West Indies 31 years ago. A reversal now would be a shattering psychological blow, as much for them as for their contemporaries at home.

The influence of American sport through the omnipresent satellite television has been greatlyexaggerated as a reason forthe sharp decline in new cricket talent. But there are other distractions that have caught the imagination of the young West Indian, forwhom cricket would have been the first, if not sole, choice some 20 or 30 years ago.

Now football and track and field, the traditional sports on school curricula, have been joined by basketball - with its aggressively marketed superstars like Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal - swimming, volleyball, hockey and others to entice away the budding Viv Richards and Michael Holdings.

Jamaica became the first cricket-playing West Indian country to reach football's World Cup finals in France in 1998, galvanising the country and, indeed, the Caribbean behind them. They and Trinidad and Tobago are again in the hunt for qualification this time and Barbados, as much a nonentity in world football as they are renowned in cricket, beat Costa Rica in a qualifying match last month.

Dwight Yorke and the sprinter Ato Boldon now attract more column inches in the Trinidad and Tobago press than their famous cricketing countryman, Brian Lara. Obadele Thompson, like Boldon, a contender for a sprint medal in the Sydney Olympics, is headline news in Barbados at a time when the island that produced Sobers, the Three Ws, Hall, Hunte, Marshall, Garner, Greenidge, Haynes and a host of other cricket greats, is short of players of renown.

Victory at The Oval would not mask the many problems that continue to affect West Indies' cricket, but it would allow a disappointing tour to end positively. The consequences of defeat would be depressing.