West Indies slide fails to dent demand at box office

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The International Cricket Council published their updated Test championships ratings yesterday.

Coming as it did, whether by coincidence or not, on the eve of the first Test between England and the West Indies at Lord's, it emphasised a gap between the teams as wide as the Atlantic Ocean that separates them geographically.

England's recent surge of winning form, the latest manifestation of which was their 3-0 triumph over today's opponents in the Caribbean three months ago, has carried them to 107 points, second only to the peerless Australia, who head the table by 22 points.

In contrast, the West Indies, every bit as powerful and as dominant 20 years ago as Australia are now, languish eighth out of 10, with 76 points, ahead only of Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, Test cricket's newest entrants. Even if they win all four Tests - an eventuality that would, at least, put the ICC's high-priced anti-corruption unit to work - it would still not alter their position, so far do they trail the rest.

Not since the 1930s, their early years in Test cricket when their team comprised mainly weekend club players, have the West Indies been regarded so lowly. Not since then have they fielded a team as inexperienced as the XI who take the field today. Seven are under the age of 25; six have never played a Test in England. Five have fewer than 10 Tests; one is on his debut. Seven decades ago, the great George Headley - in 1939 the first batsman to score hundreds in both innings of a Lord's Test - had to carry the team on his shoulders so many times that he was called "Atlas". Now they tend to be equally dependent on the similarly exceptional batting talent of one man, their captain, Brian Lara.

Yet the ECB reports that every ticket has been sold. England's resurrection, after an eternity of the misery the West Indies are presently going through, is obviously a factor. But it is no more so than the continuing appeal of West Indies cricket built on the deeds of their great players and great teams that have graced Lord's and every other ground in England since Headley's days and before.

There is yet another reason: their inconsistency. When they are good, they can be very, very good; when they are bad, they are horrid. They are rarely boring. England have had several recent examples of such contrasts.

In the Lord's Test four years ago, they gained a first innings lead of 134, having won the previous Test at Edgbaston by an innings, only to be skittled for 54 in their second. At Kingston's Sabina Park in March, England led by a mere 28 on first innings, 339 to 311, only for the West Indies to tumble just as spectacularly yet again, for 47.

In the Barbados Test a few weeks later, the margin on first innings was only four, but the match was lost when they capitulated for 94 in the space of an afternoon.

Yet, nine days later, Lara was reclaiming Test cricket's highest score as his own with his unbeaten 400 as the West Indies amassed 751 for 5 declared, the highest total England have ever conceded.

Lord's is one ground where a hundred has eluded Lara. That and his passionate but gradually fading mission to lead a West Indian revival with the gifted young players he has assembled under him, provide him with enough incentive to make what is almost certainly his last series in England a personal triumph.

But there is more to this team than Lara. Either side of him in the order are Ramnaresh Sarwan, his 23-year-old vice-captain, and Shivnarine Chanderpaul, two batsmen who average better than 40, and an opener, Chris Gayle, who is only three runs lower in 43 Tests. They should provide the foundation for fighting totals on true pitches.

It is the support they get from the fledglings, the all-rounders Dwayne Smith, Dwayne Bravo and Omari Banks, and the lively fast bowlers Tino Best, Fidel Edwards and Jermaine Lawson, all newcomers to Tests in England, that is likely to determine whether they show that the pasting they got in the Caribbean was an aberration.