Vaughan not the only Caribbean gambler

West Indies join England in the race against time

As the Kensington Oval reopened yesterday in all its novel splendour it seemed clear that the West Indies will, somehow, be ready for the ninth Cricket World Cup. It will be a near thing, and the statements of the past week demonstrate that it is not yet a racing certainty. However, the mood that the finishing straight can be devoured is irrefutable, and overtime, faith and a few stern words will also help.

Something similar could be applied to England's chances. The team have suddenly been transported from a place where you did not need to be sceptical to recognise that they were without a prayer to a land where rampant expectation is the chief enemy. Similarly, Andrew Flintoff has been elevated from stumblebum to messiah, as significant a transformation as a man can make in two weeks.

Perhaps, given the sheer unbounded gaiety of yesterday's proceedings here, it should be supposed that the West Indies' chances of staging a tournament which is memorable for all the right reasons and therefore of surprising the world are more realistic than England's aspirations of doing likewise.

It is difficult to assess England after their astonishing victory in the Australian tri-series, which involved four successive victories, three against the hosts. Of course, three cheers are in order, but the suggestion, conveyed by mood rather than speech, that they should all be given MBEs must be avoided.

Australia had begun, it appears, to believe that they were invincible. It was their misfortune as well as their comeuppance that England suddenly discovered belief. History will show that this was built initially on Ed Joyce's maiden international hundred in Sydney, when this attractive player had nothing to lose and his mature partnership with Ian Bell propelled England to a position that, for once, they did not squander.

The remarkable captaincy of Michael Vaughan in the crucial meeting with New Zealand in the following match cemented the foundations. Vaughan has gone out of fashion, as if he were the mini skirt. Suddenly, he is yesterday's clothing. His role in England's one-day transformation in the CB Series has been swiftly forgotten because Andrew Flintoff, our Fred, was at the helm when the Australians were finally crushed.

Flintoff did well, for sure, and about time too. But it could be deduced that he did not do as well as he had done badly in the early part of the tour. Flintoff is a smashing man and (almost) a great cricketer, but the captaincy of England this winter has diminished him rather than dignified him. He deserved all his belated success, but he is a better player for England without the captaincy.

Of course, Vaughan is a gamble for the World Cup. Of course, there is reason to believe that the treatment of sports injuries, especially those sustained by England cricketers, is as primitive a science as alchemy. His hamstring has simply not healed as quickly or as smoothly as it was said it would.

But the question was asked generally not long ago by one who had to make the decision: is Vaughan worth the risk? Unequivocally, again, of course. England for now are better with him than without him. Ignore the fact that he has never scored a one-day hundred and is a gross under-achiever. He has something and it is called leadership, and like the mini skirt he is worth a recall.

The rest of the squad seems partially to be based on a series of hunches that have come off rather than strategic planning, whatever the coach, Duncan Fletcher, may claim. Fletcher deserves credit for helping the turnaround, but we should not conclude that it is all the result of a careful, long-term strategy paying justified dividends.

Whatever happens, England will enjoy their time here, where barring impos-sible disaster in the group stages they will play three of their six Super Eight stage matches (including a possible semi-final decider against West Indies). It has always been a wonderful stadium but it was rickety. Now it is a wonderful stadium of its times.

It was completely appro-priate that the official opening yesterday was accompanied by a Twenty20 exhibition match that involved some of those who had graced it in its former existence. It was a meaningless match but it allowed the past to form a bridge with the present.

As the Rev Wes Hall, a great fast bowler and a great Bajan, put it the day before: "We have to know our history, we have to know where we have come from to know where we are and where we are going." The new ground recognises that. Its buildings are of clean, sweeping lines, capturing the spirit of another age and this age, of this island and of the Carib-bean. It offers the justified hope that the West Indies will supply a tournament fit for the 21st century.

LET THE PARTY BEGIN

Amid a delightful cacophony of Caribbean sounds symbolising national rejoicing, the new Kensington Oval was officially unveiled yesterday. It also marked the unofficial opening of the ninth World Cup. The official ceremony is at Sabina Park, Kingston, on 11 March, but there was the definite whiff of a march being stolen. The 2007 Kensington Oval is a tremendous arena, fit for a World Cup final, which it will stage late in April. Yesterday, it was perfectly content with a festival match between a West Indies Legends XI and a Rest of the World XI. It was a treat. The statue of Sir Garfield Sobers outside the ground, unveiled by the great man himself (left), said it all.

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