No season in the long history of West Indies cricket has started against such a sorry backdrop, none has been as important to its immediate well- being. It offers a strange cocktail of contrasts. If no Test series at present offers a better chance to restore crushed pride and self-confidence than one against England, none holds quite the same perils. And, in an unsettled and discredited team, rarely have places been so open.
It is 30 years since England won in the Caribbean and their record over the past decade has placed them among the also-rans of Test cricket. The West Indies' passionate public might just accept losses to Australia and Pakistan on foreign soil but would hardly countenance the indignity of defeat by such opposition at home.
Yet the West Indies continue to shoot themselves in the foot. Even now, just three weeks before the First Test in Jamaica, Michael Atherton still does not know who will walk out with him to spin the coin at Sabina Park. While he has been speedily confirmed as captain for Tests and one-day internationals, the West Indies Cricket Board have continued to procrastinate.
It is the dilly-dallying that has allowed the contentious conjecture to simmer over whether Courtney Walsh will be retained or be replaced by Brian Lara - or indeed someone entirely different. It is a decision - reportedly to be announced on 10 January - which will not only determine the West Indies' style of leadership, as different as the personalities, but possibly even the individual contribution of each.
The steady, level-headed Walsh's reliability and commitment were factors that impelled the Board to overrule the selectors' recommendation last June that he should be replaced by Lara. But he has now presided over two series losses in a year and sounded broken after the 3-0 debacle in Pakistan in which he gave his all and got little in return from his men.
His standards, as fast bowler and sportsman, have never faltered in 13 years of international cricket and his phenomenal fitness and determination have carried him through 96 Tests. But he is now 35 and, with full, back- to-back series against South Africa and Australia in 1998-99, to be followed by the World Cup in 1999, his long-term prospects have to be seriously questioned.
Except for a growing list of indiscretions - and, probably, his world- record Test and first-class scores in those heady six weeks of 1994 that changed his life - Lara would have been captain as soon as Richie Richardson stepped down. He has gradually fallen from favour with each transgression for which he has been either fined or warned and for which he has repeatedly had to apologise.
Even among those who contend that he is temperamentally unsuited to the position, the consensus is that he has an instinctive feel for the game and its intricacies, that his thinking isahead of the action and that his tactics are inventive and imaginative. It is a view supported in his only Test as captain, in place of the injured Walsh, in which the West Indies beat India in Barbados last April, one of only two West Indies wins in 1997.
The importance of the two as players complicates the dilemma of the decision makers. If Walsh is replaced, there is speculation that he would retire. That would remove an outstanding fast bowler, the most experienced and still one of the most skilful in the game, and cause a reshaping of the attack. On the other hand, there is the widespread feeling that the captaincy is what Lara needs to stimulate his hunger for cricket. More and more, his sporting obsession has become golf, a distraction that might partially account for his recent worrying inconsistency (an average of 36.9 in his last 16 Tests).
Whoever leads is certain to have much the same side so devastated in Pakistan. As was evident on the A tour of South Africa, there are few options. The left-handed Jimmy Adams appears to have done enough in South Africa, where he was captain, to be reinstated following his loss of technique and confidence. No other batsman on that tour averaged better than 35. He, Lara, Carl Hooper and Shivnarine Chanderpaul constitute a potentially high-scoring middle order but this has not translated into fact recently. Only five times in their last 16 completed Test innings have the West Indies managed over 300.
There is more scope in the bowling, if not nearly to the same extent as in the years of plenty of a decade ago. Fit and available, Walsh and Curtly Ambrose, possibly for the last time together, should lead the attack, the only two bowlers in history with over 300 Test wickets to play in the same team. They may not be what they were but remain a handful all the same and have the support of an emerging group of strapping, young, eager and pacy accomplices.
Franklyn Rose outbowled them both in his debut season against India and Sri Lanka last year and Merv Dillon, less than a year into first-class cricket, has already justified coach Malcolm Marshall's flattering initial assessment following a couple of sightings in Hampshire second team cricket in 1996. Their first overseas tour, in the demanding environment of Pakistan, should have sharpened their wits.
The challenge of others, such as Nixon McLean, Reon King and the promising 21-year-old left-armer Pedro Collins, who were impressive in South Africa, and even the possibility of a specialist spinner, such as Rawl Lewis and Dinanath Ramnarine, should ensure a keen edge. Above all, the contemplation of going under to England in front of their own people will stimulate the West Indies. For obvious reasons, victory over England has always been especially satisfying, defeat disastrous. If Clive Lloyd could berate his players for a lack of commitment against Pakistan, there should be no such complaint now.
Ambrose's attitude is typical. "They are talking big," he said. "They figure they have a chance of beating the West Indies now, so that really motivates me. I'll be ready for them."Reuse content