West Indies look to raw pacemen to thrive at home

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The Independent Online

As they have done every year since 1996, the West Indies start another home series against the backdrop of a disastrous overseas campaign.

The first Test against England at Kingston's Sabina Park comes scarcely a month after their return from South Africa, where they were soundly beaten in three of the four Tests and lost the one-day international series 3-1 - and where their sloppiness on the field was a reflection of their demeanour off it.

Less than a year into his second stint as captain, Brian Lara's leadership is again being questioned. Sir Viv Richards, who was there throughout the South Africa trip as chief selector, criticised the management structure and some of the players for "playing games".

But England should know from first-hand experience, and from recent history, not to be misled by tales of West Indies woe. When they last toured the Caribbean six years ago, they arrived to find West Indies cricket in similar trouble. They left having been beaten 3-1 in the Tests, and Michael Atherton had resigned as captain.

West Indies' home and away disparity is well established. Their overseas Test record in the last seven years is 28 defeats and five wins. It is counter-balanced by a ratio of nine lost and 13 won at home over the same period.

Lara's explanation is that the current players falter outside of what he calls their "comfort zone" when overseas. They miss the support of friends, family, a passionate public and conditions they know well. They will be thankful to be back in a familiar environment that is strange to the majority of the opposition.

The West Indies batting, with Lara still at its core, is their major strength. In the 12 Tests since his reinstatement as captain, Lara has made 1,590 runs at an average of 72.77 with two double and four single hundreds.

In that time, there have also been three hundreds each by Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Ramnaresh Sarwan, two each by Chris Gayle and Daren Ganga and one each by Wavell Hinds and Dwayne Smith, the 20-year-old who scored an unbeaten, run-a-ball 105 on his debut in the Cape Town Test against South Africa. Another Smith, the dashing little 22-year-old left-hander Devon, who played four Tests against Australia last year, will open with Gayle after four hundreds in seven Carib Cup games.

Where the West Indies are deficient is in bowling, fielding and fitness - areas where they were strongest in their dominant era under Clive Lloyd and Richards. In Lara's second tenure, they have yielded one double and 24 single hundreds, three totals over 600 and four over 500.

For the first time since 1988 England's batsmen will not have to confront Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose, the great fast bowling duet who claimed a third of West Indies' overall 924 Test wickets against them.

Only one bowler has more than 100 Test wickets, the infuriatingly inconsistent Merv Dillon. Whether the attack can take the 20 wickets necessary to win a Test is likely to depend on a group of young men of genuine pace, unproven and raw but, as with so many eminent predecessors, able to develop overnight.

Fidel Edwards, 22, was picked after a solitary first-class match. He propels the ball with a slinging, round-arm action, and the South Africa captain, Graeme Smith, puts him among the three fastest bowlers at present. Tino Best, 22, the leading wicket-taker in the last two Carib Cup seasons, and Ravi Rampaul, now at the Under-19 World Cup after showing distinct development in South Africa, reach 90 mph.

Edwards enjoyed five-wicket returns in his first two Tests but managed only eight, at 81 apiece, in the four in South Africa. Best's figures in his only Test were 0 for 99 against Australia last season on a Kensington Oval pitch described by Steve Waugh as the slowest he had played on.

It was a criticism that should ensure there is no repetition anywhere this time. If so, England's tour could yet coincide with the emergence of a new West Indian fast-bowling dynasty.