Bring on the Aussies
As England wrapped up a 4-0 series whitewash with victory in the fourth Test at The Oval, the British press looked forward to one thing: The Ashes. Second to that was Brian Lara's dilemma. He has probably played his last Test in England, but has he also played his last as West Indies' captain?
The Mail on Sunday's headline said it all: "Glorious England cry - Now bring on the Aussies." Underneath that, Peter Hayter let England's statistics speak for themselves. "Eight England batsmen have contributed 16 centuries this year - Trescothick, Vaughan and Graham Thorpe three each, Andrew Strauss and Andy Flintoff two apiece, and one each for Nasser Hussain, Geraint Jones and Robert Key.
"England's bowlers have taken 20 West Indies and New Zealand wickets all but once in 11 matches, and while Steve Harmison dominated proceedings with 53 wickets, three more of his colleagues have collected more than 30 - Matthew Hoggard, Flintoff and Ashley Giles."
For Hayter, Lara's emotional farewell was just a detail: "For, by the time Vaughan and his men began their slow lap of honour around the ground, those who have suffered Ashes humiliation for so long were well into their thoughts of what may be to come. After all, if Richie Benaud believes England have 'a very good chance' and bookmakers William Hill have slashed the odds on their winning to 7-2 from the 9-1 they offered prior to the 2002 trip Down Under, they may be on to something at last. The rest, as they say, may be historic."
"Nobody will know until this time next year exactly how close England have come to Australia," said Scyld Berry in the Sunday Telegraph, "but for a certainty Vaughan's men are closing the gap rapidly on Ricky Ponting's. In the eight previous Ashes series Australia held all the aces, but now England at long last have three of their own."
And those three aces are: Steve Harmison, who, "if not better than Jason Gillespie, is fitter and more likely to last five Tests in as many weeks," Andrew Flintoff "with his three-dimensional skills (even Adam Gilchrist has only two)", and finally England's team spirit, "which includes their support staff, which Australia's does not. Above all it has been Fletcher's reading of human character - his elimination of the weak or egotistic - which has created an environment highly conducive to individual growth (eg Matthew Hoggard - strokeplayer!)"
As for Brian Lara, "This must be the end of his captaincy," said Berry. "He has gone on far too long as it is - once England had gone 3-0 up in Barbados that was the time for him to resign. His diplomacy and statesmanship in public disguise his lack of those skills in the dressing-room, his failure to motivate players who manifestly do not want to play for him. The causes of West Indies' decline are numerous and complicated, but at one single stroke they can begin the long haul back. Lara's genius as a batsman is as undeniable as his inability to lead."
"Nobody was quite sure whether Lara planned to return in four years' time," said Mike Atherton, also in the Sunday Telegraph, "but his valedictory wave to the crowd suggested he has made up his mind. This great player has played his last Test innings in England, and the Oval crowd warmly acknowledged the fact."
Athers continued, "Deep down, he must also know that he has captained the West Indies for the last time in a Test match. It is a sad thing to say, because he is a likeable man and, by common consent, he has buckled down better than when he took the job for the first time from Courtney Walsh. He has also had the great misfortune to be captaining the West Indies at their lowest ebb. Captain Ahab couldn't stop this ship from sinking."
But its not all doom and gloom. "The talent is there," Atherton concluded. "With commitment, dedication and, if the common good can rise above island insularity, West Indies cricket can rise again. It will not be easy, and it is not Lara's destiny to be the man to do it."
"By winning seven consecutive Test matches," wrote Stephen Brenkley in the Independent on Sunday, "Michael Vaughan's men have assembled a run - yes, one that deserves only to be called magnificent - that has eluded every England team for 76 years. In a sequence spanning the home summer of 1928 (also against a raw West Indies side, playing Tests for the first time) and the first four matches of the following winter against Australia (containing a raw Don Bradman playing his first Tests) the team led by Percy Chapman won seven in a row."
But human nature and human desire being what they are, everybody's hearts and minds are already jumping forward to next summer and indeed to what may happen at The Oval next year. This young, assured England team, comfortable in each other's company, would receive more than a roar if they were to take Australia to the wire and beat them to it."
Elsewhere in the IoS, Tony Cozier admits that the rebuilding of West Indian cricket "is a monumental task that involves all aspects of the game, mental, technical, physical, attitudinal, and that has to deal with the pettiness of insular politics that is peculiar to West Indies."
But there is some hope for the future. "There are not many 20-year-olds who could have made such an impression as Dwayne Bravo on debut in a losing team," said Cozier. "Fidel Edwards and Tino Best possess pure pace. The two Smiths, Devon and Dwayne, already have Test hundreds against quality opposition to their names." Cozier concludes that the change in the attitude of the team "will not come overnight, yet it should end the era of mediocrity that has left West Indies cricket in such a state of depression. But everyone has to buy into the change to make it a success."