Fallen giants face daunting test
It says much for how the mighty have fallen that, a few weeks ago, West Indies took comfort in the relatively small margin of defeat they suffered in a Test in Barbados. Outside the theatre where they once starred - where they went 59 years without defeat - West Indies were reduced to foraging through the bins for scraps.
Where once West Indies set records for invincibility - they went 15 years without losing a Test series between 1980-1994 - their trophy cabinet now groans only with loneliness and neglect. Excluding Zimbabwe and Bangladesh you have to go back to 1995 to the last time West Indies won an overseas series. They have won just eight of their last 80 Tests. They are overwhelming underdogs in the Test series against England.
The West Indies squad of 2012 is not bad: they have the No. 1-rated Test batsman and a fast bowling attack the envy of every country but England, South Africa and Australia. While they bear no comparison to the team of the 1970s or 80s - the likes of Ezra Moseley, Wayne Daniel and Sylvester Clarke, bit part players in that glory era, would have been legends had they been born 30 years later - they possess talent, team spirit and unity of purpose. Those are decent foundations.
The frustrating aspect is that they are not maximising their resources. A board dripping with incompetence and a players' union bristling with militancy have combined to create a farcical situation where there is a side available to them which might be able to defeat the official team. With better management, the likes of Chris Gayle, Dwayne Bravo, Andre Russell and Sunil Narine might be playing at Lord's rather than in the IPL. The likes of Ramnaresh Sarwan, Sulieman Benn, Tino Best, Brendan Nash and even the injured Jerome Taylor might also be involved. Yes, it is hard to compete with the money on offer in India, but the England set-up found a workable compromise. The West Indies need to do the same.
In their absence, West Indies are overly reliant for their runs on Shivnarine Chanderpaul, 37, and Darren Bravo, who was dropped from the T20 side only six weeks ago due to a loss of form. The rest of the batting looks brittle - seasoned observers believe the standard of batting in the Caribbean has never been lower - and the top order will endure a searching examination against an excellent England attack on testing early summer pitches. It is asking a great deal of them overcome such obstacles. Too much.
There are, perhaps, some signs of improvement. India were given a scare in Delhi; Australia were pushed all the way in Bridgetown. Some believe that the coach and captain partnership of Ottis Gibson and Darren Sammy - who have only been together for 18-months - will reap rewards if they are given time. But patience is not limitless. West Indies have been in transition longer than continents. At some stage, brave losses will have to give way to actual victories or heads will roll.
In the long-term it may take a cultural shift for West Indies to show real improvement. It will require the next generation of players to develop the work ethic and fitness of their forerunners, it will require the departure of egos from the board and the union and it will require resolution to the franchise v country divide that has weakened them on this tour.
For England this series presents something of a 'no win' scenario. Even a 3-0 victory will be seen as nothing more than regulation and any slip-up will be magnified. Victory is not just expected of them; it is demanded.
Underestimating their foe should not be an issue. Teams that have lost four of their last five Tests really should not have an ounce of complacency and several of the top order batsmen - Ian Bell and perhaps Kevin Pietersen among them - may feel they have points to prove after chastening winters.
There are issues to resolve. After a long period of stability, there are two or, perhaps, three positions available. Firstly Jonny Bairstow, benefiting from the injury to the desperately unfortunate Ravi Bopara, has an opportunity to seize the No. 6 position, while one of Steven Finn, Graham Onions and Tim Bresnan has an opportunity to claim the third seamer's spot. It bodes well for England that they have such competition for places. In James Anderson and Stuart Broad they have an outstanding opening pair in any conditions: in their own they are lethal.
And then there is Andrew Strauss. Unpalatable though some find it, the debate over Strauss' position will grow until he finds consistent form or steps down. England may get away with an underperforming opener against lesser opposition, but they did not against Pakistan and they will not against South Africa. The days of a Mike Brearley-style captain - and Strauss' average over the last 12 months is a distinctly Brearley-esque 26 - are as long gone as the days of specialist keepers. Strauss has the class, the backing and the work ethic to come again: it would solve a major headache if he ended the debate this series.
West Indies' decline brings no pleasure to any genuine cricket lover. With the possible exception of Pakistan, the Caribbean has produced more cricketers of flair than any region and the unifying power of the sport on people from the region cannot be overstated. Even the most fervent England supporter would delight in their resurgence. But any belief that such a return is imminent is born more of hope than expectation. Any team containing players as talented as Kemar Roach and Chanderpaul has a chance, but it will be a major surprise if England do not inflict a heavy defeat.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo