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August 22, 2004
There aren't many people left who have seen England win seven Tests in a row. It last happened 75 years ago, when Percy Chapman's side won all three matches at home to West Indies - their first Tests - and then won the first four encounters of the 1928-29 Ashes series. It's all of 45 years since England won every Test of the home summer, a five-nil romp (whitewash was still something for the scullery wall) against a very ordinary Indian side in 1959.
It has been an absorbing summer, with some excellent Test cricket sandwiching a forgettable one-day series - forgettable by England, anyway, as they tweak their side and routinely forget to put enough specialist batsmen in it.
But the Tests have been fascinating, especially the first three against New Zealand, which all hinged on fourth-day turnarounds that wrenched the initiative back England's way. Stephen Fleming was hamstrung by a succession of injuries to key men, but the New Zealanders put up a grim fight - which is more than you can say for the West Indians.
Sad to say, this must have been the worst West Indian side to tour England since the Second World War - and even their 1939 team, with few great names apart from George Headley, only lost one of the three Tests. England did win 3-0 in 1957, but the side they beat included the Three Ws, as well as the young Sobers, Kanhai and Hall, and it would seem from afar that there were issues with the captain, John Goddard, a white man brought out of retirement to lead the side.
This current team showed few signs of being competitive and, Dwayne Bravo apart, few signs of containing players with a bright international future. Corey Collymore and Jermaine Lawson tried hard, but would have been an Igglesdenish 17th choice for the West Indian teams of the 1980s - bowlers like Wayne Daniel, who won a mere handful of Test caps, and Franklyn Stephenson who won none, must be cursing their parents' timing. Tino Best huffed and puffed but failed to convince, and only Fidel Edwards might occasionally have got a game under Clive Lloyd.
A good way to gauge the respective strengths of two sides in a series is to choose a composite XI of the best performers. If you did that for the current series, there wouldn't be many West Indians in the mix. Chris Gayle, perhaps, although the bowlers always think they have a chance to deceive the eye and beat the feet. Brian Lara, maybe ... but on reputation, not figures (264 runs at 33, a lower average than all England's specialist batsmen). Shivnarine Chanderpaul, probably, although it would be hard to know who to leave out.
Allrounder? Guess who. Wicketkeeper? Geraint Jones. Spinner? Ashley Giles. Fast bowlers? Harmison and Hoggard, so there might just be a spot there for the pacy Edwards ahead of Jimmy Anderson or Simon Jones.
So, after cantering to the Wisden Trophy, is Michael Vaughan's side really up there with the best? Sterner challenges lie ahead. First in the sights are South Africa, in something of a slump themselves, although they are always formidable at home. England's touring party is announced on Wednesday, and an embarrassment of riches means that Ian Bell is unlikely to make the cut once Mark Butcher and Graham Thorpe, Surrey's old sweats, return. However, Bell, who made a composed 70 and took a screamer in the gully on debut at The Oval, won't be denied for long.
And then it's bring on the world champions. We've been in this position before: after walloping Australia in 1985 David Gower stood on the balcony at The Oval and announced that West Indies - then unchallenged as world leaders - would probably be "quaking in their boots". He meant it as a joke, and there were Caribbean-wide smiles when West Indies won that series five-nil. How times have changed.
But Englishmen can dream of Ashes success: Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne will be a year older by then, and the Aussie machine is in some danger of seizing up now most of the components are over 30 (mind you, most of the components' batting averages are over 50).
Ricky Ponting, Australia's impressive captain, has admitted that England are playing "fantastic" cricket at the moment. We'll see. Maybe the last word should go to McGrath, who thinks the Aussies will win next summer's series three-nil. That's a compliment, he explained: "Normally I'd say five-nil."
Steven Lynch is editor of Wisden Cricinfo.
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