The unlikely lads reach the final hurdle
This past year has been quite a voyage of self-discovery for England's one-day cricketers. It all began last November amid the vapid indifference of the Bangladesh tour; progressed to Sri Lanka and the ignominy of that 88-all-out debacle at Dambulla and a double washout in Colombo, and blundered blindly on through a rain-ruined Caribbean venture and a miserable NatWest Series campaign. And yet, by some miracle, the team has landed up in the final of the Champions Trophy, and are now favourites to secure their first global title, at the fourth time of asking.
If it's all a bit much to take in, then at least England can take comfort from the fact that their opposition will be feeling equally disorientated. West Indies have spent much of the past year being kicked from pillar to post and back again - by England's cricketers on the field, but perhaps more damagingly by a legion of former Caribbean legends in the press-box, none of whom has required a second invitation to voice their scathing opinions. And yet, in the last gasp of an exhausting season, Brian Lara and his beleaguered team have earned themselves a chance at redemption. It's enough to bring a tear to the eye.
Two improbable contestants then, but one tasty final in prospect - and an unexpectedly fitting conclusion to a season in which England and West Indies have crossed swords so often, it is a wonder there is any steel left on either team's blades. But there is no risk of this being written off as just another encounter, for it has been an eternity since either team made it to a final of this magnitude. England lost out to Imran Khan's cornered tigers, Pakistan, at Melbourne in the 1992 World Cup, and though West Indies reached the final of the inaugural ICC Knockout in 1998-99 (in the days before it was as widely recognised as a mini-World Cup) they have not been seen on the big stage since 1983, when India's bits-and-pieces heroes shocked them at Lord's.
Tomorrow, at least, the pain of defeat for the vanquished should be offset by the sense of achievement in simply reaching the final, not least for England, whose vanquishing of the Aussies at Edgbaston seems likely to enter the annals as one of those rare beasts - an "I was there" one-day match. But though they are undoubtedly the form team of this tournament, England cannot afford to be complacent about tomorrow's challenge: this year's Test tally may be 7-0 in their favour, but in one-day cricket, West Indies have won four matches to three, and it was they who secured the bragging rights by reaching the final of the NatWest Series in July, where they lost out to New Zealand in a one-sided final at Lord's.
England's failure in that competition still sticks in Duncan Fletcher's throat, and yesterday, he insisted that the only way his team would receive the recognition they deserve this year would be through victory, and victory alone. "Going through to this final is important for us," he said. "When we beat West Indies and New Zealand in the Test series they were regarded as being rubbish and on the way out, but now people must appreciate that England have been improving and suddenly got our act together in the one-day game."
There can be little doubt about that now, after a 2-1 victory over India in the NatWest Challenge that was more emphatic than the scoreline suggests, and two handsome wins against Australia and Sri Lanka. The cornerstones of England's success have been fairly easy to spot - Andrew Flintoff, the world one-day player of the year, towers above all comers, while Steve Harmison continues to translate his aggressive line in Tests into a frugal bat-jarring length for the limited-overs game.
But there have been other factors as well. Paul Collingwood, who epitomises the team ethic that permeates the squad, has not allowed himself to get frustrated by a lack of opportunity in Test cricket, and instead has passed the time by turning himself into the best infielder in the world. Andrew Strauss and Ashley Giles have carried their confidence across from the Test arena, and though Michael Vaughan's overall form has been a cause for concern, his iron-willed 86 against Australia was the clearest proof yet that he is a captain and a player who will bow to no-one.
But talking of captains, there is one player who will relish tomorrow's opportunity perhaps more than any other man on the field. It has been Lara's misfortune to preside over an era of perpetual decline in West Indian cricket, and the rewards for his efforts have been few and far between. Tomorrow, however, he has the opportunity to deliver to the Caribbean their first piece of silverware since Clive Lloyd lifted the World Cup in 1979, and it is unlikely that he will be stepping back to let his young guns hog the limelight.
Lara's participation was in doubt after the semi-final against Pakistan, when he was struck a fearful blow on the back of the neck as he swayed into a 92mph bouncer from Shoaib Akhtar. Though he was soon passed fit, the warning signs are there that, at 35, his reflexes may not be what they once were. Harmison and Flintoff will have taken careful note, and it is unlikely that his innings will pass without one or two testers from the bowler's half of the pitch.
All year, Lara has insisted long and loud that West Indies is a team, not a group of individuals, and finally that argument is beginning to be taken seriously. With stars such as Chris Gayle, Ramnaresh Sarwan and Shivnarine Chanderpaul, the depth and variety of the batting is the envy of many, more highly-rated sides, and though the bowling lacks the explosive menace of yesteryear, there is a solidity to the endeavours of Ian Bradshaw, Corey Collymore that ensures that few sides can ever take them apart.
The main man, however, is also one of the youngest on show in this tournament. Dwayne Bravo is one of those players with the ability to make things happen, as demonstrated by his pinpoint throw to run out Yasir Hameed in the semi-final victory over Pakistan. He made his mark during the Tests with runs and wickets in a losing cause, but he is a winner at heart and tomorrow at The Oval might just be his stage to prove it. That's if a certain other allrounder doesn't get there first, of course.
England (probable) 1 Vikram Solanki, 2 Marcus Trescothick, 3 Michael Vaughan (capt), 4 Andrew Strauss, 5 Andrew Flintoff, 6 Paul Collingwood, 7 Geraint Jones (wk), 8 Ashley Giles, 9 Alex Wharf, 10 Darren Gough, 11 Steve Harmison.
West Indies (probable) 1 Chris Gayle, 2 Wavell Hinds, 3 Ramnaresh Sarwan, 4 Brian Lara (capt), 5 Shivnarine Chanderpaul, 6 Ricardo Powell, 7 Dwayne Bravo, 8 Ryan Hinds, 9 Courtney Browne (wk), 10 Ian Bradshaw, 11 Corey Collymore.