Time to bang the drum for England's glory boys

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When the England cricket selectors announced their winter tour parties on Monday, eight days earlier than normal, it was a case of better man-management than news management. The players will go into tomorrow's final Test against the West Indies without the usual noose around their necks - and clearly, no noose is good noose. On the other hand, the main story of the week has been the recall of a fringe player, Ian Salisbury, who is not yet in the team, and may never be. We have been living in the future, when we should have been living in the present, savouring the moment.

When the England cricket selectors announced their winter tour parties on Monday, eight days earlier than normal, it was a case of better man-management than news management. The players will go into tomorrow's final Test against the West Indies without the usual noose around their necks - and clearly, no noose is good noose. On the other hand, the main story of the week has been the recall of a fringe player, Ian Salisbury, who is not yet in the team, and may never be. We have been living in the future, when we should have been living in the present, savouring the moment.

England need only a draw to wrap up a major home Test series. They are 2-1 up with one to play, which hasn't happened since 1985 (against Australia, of all people). It hasn't happened since David Gower was captain and Ian Botham had blond highlights. It hasn't happened during the entire existence of this newspaper.

The press and public have got so used to knocking the England team that we are in danger now of not giving them the credit they deserve. We are doing the British thing and training our cynicism on their opponents. "Mind you," people are saying, "West Indies are awful. Worse than England!" Yes, but, only for a little of the time. Only one of these teams is ranked in the top half of the Wisden World Championship, and it's not England (they are eighth, a full five places behind West Indies). Only three players taking part in the series are unquestionably among the game's all-time greats, and - with all due respect to Mike Atherton and Alec Stewart and Darren Gough - they are Brian Lara, Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh.

Even in their present impoverished state, West Indies take a lot of beating.

The current Australians, one of the greatest teams ever to trot on to a cricket field, couldn't do it: the series 18 months ago was drawn 2-2. West Indies' critics - who include many Britons of Caribbean descent, vociferous in their dismay - would point out that that was in the Caribbean, and West Indies' away form has been dreadful for a couple of years. Yes, but, a series in England has never really been an away series for them. Even the younger players have mostly done time in the leagues here (on even worse pitches than we give them for Test matches). The opening bowlers have virtually the same number of Test caps and wickets in England as their opposite numbers, at better averages: Walsh has 80 wickets in 20 Tests at 24.82, Ambrose 85 in 19 at 20.63, Gough 88 in 22 at 27.69, Andy Caddick 80 in 20 at 26.96.

Gough has been at his very best in this series, and Caddick has been lethal in patches. But both have still been outbowled by Curtly and Courtney. The difference between the sides - a narrow one, since the two innings defeats cancel each other out, and the only other result was England's two-wicket win at Lord's - has lain in the collapsibility levels, and the support bowling. In fact these come down to the same thing. When West Indies' third and fourth seamers come on, it is suddenly a different game: one or two an over turns to four, the slips disappear, and there are plenty of help-yourself balls. It would actually be quite difficult to be all out for 50 or 60 to a team containing Franklyn Rose and Reon King in their present form. Rose, unfit at Headingley, still managed to dent his team's cause, by sitting in front of the sightscreen when Ramnaresh Sarwan was trying to rebuild their innings, and having to be shouted at like a thick spectator.

When England's third and fourth seamers come on, nothing changes. They are as fast, accurate and dependable as the opening pair - more so on Caddick's off days. The selectors have made several good decisions this summer, but the very best ones were to summon Dominic Cork and Craig White. The rebirth of White shows that there's hope for us all, even Salisbury.

There is a fabulous irony in the sight of West Indies being steamrollered by a four-man pace attack. And that must be England's best chance of making it 3-1 at The Oval. They have four seamers who have each taken a five-for in this series, and a spinner, Ashley Giles, who has taken one Test wicket in his life, and is not fully fit. Giles batted very well in the NatWest final but his bowling (seven overs, none for 29 in a bowlers' game) helped lose the game for Warwickshire. The best spinner in England, on present form, is probably Gough, with his slower ball. And increasingly, any surface which helps the slow bowlers also helps the fast ones. There were many references last week to Phil Tufnell's two great matches at The Oval, against West Indies in 1991 and Australia in 1997. What is not so easily remembered is that his first haul was equalled by David 'Syd' Lawrence (seven wickets each in the match), and his second nearly equalled by Caddick (eight wickets to Tuffers' 11). In England today, is there any such thing as a pitch which doesn't help the seamers?

Tim de Lisle is editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly and wisden.com

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