Do or Die: West Indies Host England

Can England's cricketers win a series in the Caribbean for the first time in quarter of a century?

Batsman’s eye view of an approaching missile from West Indies fast bowler Courtney Walsh. Photograph by Gordon BrooksCricket at the Queen’s Park Oval in Trinidad. Photograph by Stephen ThorpeCurtly Ambrose: one of the West Indies’s chief destroyers. Photograph by Gordon BrooksGooch, Lamb and Small celebrate England’s victory in the opening test on their last Caribbean tour in 1990.  Photograph by Stephen ThorpeIllustration by Russel HalfhideRare talent: the West Indies’ Brian LaraThe West Indies team: can they keep a 25-year Caribbean supremacy intact?West Indies opener Desmond Haynes

The old adversaries are back. Four years may be a long time in cricket, but memories still linger of past series with much to relish: England in the West Indies, the ultimate test of any touring player’s pedigree. Runs and wickets on the unofficial World Champions’ home patch are to be cherished more than most, of course, but the challenge remains immense if England are to salvage anything other than pride from this the most arduous tour of all.

The West Indies have not lost a rubber in the Caribbean for two decades, and a drawn series against them is always a major achievement; England, despite a welcome victory over Australia at the Oval at the end of their summer series, arrive in the Caribbean burdened by the unenviable record of just nine victories in 44 Tests.

However, they should at least benefit from a more sensibly structured tour than of late, with 14 days of cricket and a one-day international before the First Test in Jamaica on February 19. Their historic early triumph at Jamaica’s Sabina Park in 1990 set the tone for a heroic effort which eventually foundered at fortress Kensington in Barbados, a sterling rearguard action scuppered in the end by Curtly Ambrose.

This is a revamped England side, shorn of the courage and flamboyance of Gooch, Lamb, Gower, Gatting and Botham, and heavily reliant on a youthful breed tending to inexperience. Michael Atherton’s promising start as captain at the latter end of the Ashes series last summer is certain to undergo a serious examination; if this is to be the dawn of a new era, there could be no tougher baptism of fire.

The core of the team, though, is not unaccustomed to Caribbean conditions. Robin Smith, Devon Malcolm, Angus Eraser, Jack Russell, Alec Stewart and Nasser Hussain were on the last tour in 1990, the latter pair making Test debuts in Kingston, while Mark Ramprakash, Graham Thorpe, Steve Watkin, Ian Salisbury, and Hussain and Malcolm, were here with the England “A” team 2 years ago. Atherton’s local knowledge is limited to club side cricket for combined universities in St Lucia and a holiday in Barbados last October, but the team will be well prepared after time in Portugal and fitness weeks at Lilleshall.

England may yet rue their failure to select a third opening batsman, but Smith, a punishing batsman of bravura spirit, would possibly welcome the chance. Whether that would assist England’s cause is another matter; replacements are only a seven-hour flight away. Certainly, a firm guarantee for most tourists in the Caribbean is that one of the openers will suffer early hand damage. On the “A” team trip, for instance, Martin Moron, the stand-in captain for Atherton, did not make it beyond Bermuda after fracturing a thumb in a warm-up game.

The last series too, effectively turned on Gooch’s hand injury and a rainstorm of biblical proportions in Port of Spain which predetermined Desmond Haynes’s tedious show of gamesmanship and condemned the game to a draw. The new Code of Conduct should ensure more equable relationships, and the independent umpire would be no bad thing either. Rob Bailey, for one, does not forget Vivian Richards’s war-dance and Lloyd Barker’s misjudgment which abruptly ended his Test career. It is to be hoped that the angst evident in some recent Caribbean series does not surface to tarnish the goodwill engendered in other areas.

Pace, as ever, will define the engagements. Ambrose and Courtney Walsh are the West Indies’ chief destroyers; but who will supersede Ian Bishop, laid low again by a recurrent back injury, is unclear. Anderson Cummins will be looking to build on an encouraging season at Durham, but Patrick Patterson’s brush with the authorities may already have affected his Test career. Kenny Benjamin and Linden Joseph, injury permitting, should also be in the frame.

With selection looming ahead, competition in the Red Stripe domestic tournament is bound to be intense. Jimmy Adams, the versatile Jamaican left-hander, will be striving for a permanent middle-order berth, and Roland Holder, the Barbados captain, will be aiming for international recognition. Carlisle Best, his countryman, cruelly overlooked in the past, still harbours hopes of a late swan-song at the top level. The younger guns, with John Eugene, Philo Wallace and Robert Samuels prominent amongst the phalanx, will probably have to tarry a while longer.

Could this just be the year, too, when Carl Hooper, the enigmatic stylist, finally flowers! His 178 not out in Antigua last year, after initial good fortune against Pakistan’s Waqar Younis, was another glimpse of a sublime skill which has yielded just 1,770 runs in 39 Tests. Much will depend on the output of Richie Richardson, the West Indies captain, opener Desmond Haynes, and the rare talent of Brian Lara.

Remarkably for a team in transition, the West Indies have blooded only 15 Test players since 1986, England twice as many. Devon Malcolm was billed as the glorious gamble in 1990 after a single Test appearance, but 19 wickets in three Tests fully vindicated his inclusion.

If Malcolm is the English trump card now, Angus Fraser’s rehabilitation from a severe hip problem will come under close scrutiny with Steve Watkin, Alan Igglesden and Andrew Caddick forming the back-up seam attack. The series will also be another proving ground for Graham Thorpe, Graeme Hick, with his susceptibility to the short-pitched ball, Matthew Maynard and Mark Ramprakash, who averaged 40 on the “A” tour in 1992. Spin bowling should play a part, with Phil Tufnell, the Middlesex left-armer, and Ian Salisbury, the leg-spinning all-rounder, in contention, but it could be counteracted should West Indies present a left-handed middle order of Lara, Arthurton and Adams.

The England back-stage staff are all seasoned campaigners in the region. Keith Fletcher, the team manager, and David Roberts, the physiotherapist, toured with the “A” team, and Mike Smith, the tour manager, played five Tests in the Caribbean in 1959-60.

A Caribbean series can be just as rigorous off the field as on it, with unbridled hospitality, lustrous locations and magnificent weather making it the best tour of all for any right-thinking Englishman. Even the press is well catered for: the time difference suits UK deadlines and there is less likelihood of late night interruptions from the editor. Test matches and one-day internationals are still big occasions in the Caribbean, and pure carnival prevails at the Antigua Recreation Ground, courtesy the resident drag queens Gravy and Mayfield.

England will be backed by 4,000 supporters again at Kensington Oval in Barbados, where the West Indies have notched up 12 straight victories. Enthusiasm remains unabated, and one travel company, Caribbean Connection, has even organised an inaugural cruise tour at £4,000 a head, with such success that a second ship has been chartered. Another specialist operator says: “Cricket fans are a resilient lot. They go for the atmosphere, which is totally different. It’s more of a show, and for many it’s just enough to be there.” Undeniably, cricket in the islands is still a joy, a rollicking celebration of nationhood, culture, and old rivalries.

If Atherton leads England to a squared series, he’ll gain the Freedom of Manchester. If the unthinkable were to occur and England win, he’ll be kneeling before the Queen – they might even make him King. Most unlikely, we’d agree; but whatever the outcome, irresistible cricket is at hand, and fortunate indeed are all those winging around the Antilles to savour it.