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May 16, 2007
Two new coaches, two new captains, an entirely new environment and a change of format to boot. If ever two teams wished to draw a line under the inadequacies of their recent performances, then the first Test of the English season, which gets underway with bewildering haste on Thursday, provides the perfect opportunity. England and West Indies endured lamentable World Cup campaigns, but all that is now set to be forgotten. The balmy conditions of Bridgetown seem more than just a world away from the green-tinged gloom of St John's Wood.
It's springtime in England, which is entirely the appropriate season for Peter Moores, England's new head coach, to lay out his battleplans and begin the long-drawn process of renewal that a jaded squad so desperately needs after a winter of multiple nadirs. Since assembling at Lord's 48 hours ago, the team has been abuzz with buzzwords, with talk of "vibrancy", "energy" and all manner of similarly isotonic utterances. The message is clear. What's gone before matters no more.
"History starts from the day I took over, so let's give everyone a chance," said Moores, whose appointment has released his charges from all manner of Duncan Fletcher-era legacies. "We start with a clean slate - it's the only fair way." Though it is too soon to judge the impact or value of his new regime, Andrew Strauss, England's stand-in captain, already believes he can feel a difference within the dressing-room. "He's very hands-on and likes to get his hands grubby," said Strauss. "That rubs off on the players and over time that will come out on the pitch."
England would prefer not to have to wait too long for the results to start coming, however. West Indies are - not to put too fine a point on it - a team that are ripe for the picking. "We always go into series as underdogs because of the way we've been playing for the last couple of years," said their candid captain, Ramnaresh Sarwan. They have not beaten England in a Test match since the last hurrahs of Ambrose and Walsh at Edgbaston in 2000, which also happened to be their most recent overseas victory against any side other than Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. With Brian Lara now looking on from the sidelines, their prospects in alien conditions are bleaker still.
"It would be wrong of us to totally discount them, but one of our mantras is no-one should beat us at home," added Strauss. "There's no reason, if we play the sort of cricket that we can, that we should get beaten by West Indies. In our home conditions, we aim to be the best side in the world." For all the traumas of their 5-0 mauling against Australia, England's home record is indeed impressive, with 16 wins and just two losses in their last 22 Tests, dating back to that memorable victory over South Africa at The Oval in 2003.
If, weather permitting, England are unable to improve on those stats over the coming five days, then it really will be time for a root-and-branch reform of the team - especially against a side that has had just 48 overs of preparation since arriving in the country. "We knew what could happen with just one game for preparation," said Sarwan, after watching the rain sheet down in Taunton last week, "but we are determined to stay mentally strong."
But, for the time being, Moores is dead-set against a complete clean-out of England's cupboard. Michael Vaughan, who hasn't played a Test since the tour of Pakistan in December 2005, has been appointed as leader for the series, a situation that Strauss claims he is entirely comfortable with - even if he required a prompter when the word "relationship" somehow got snagged in his throat.
"It's not as if I'm not experienced - I've done it in these circumstances before," added Strauss, who was infamously appointed as the "stand-in's stand-in" when Andrew Flintoff went lame against Pakistan last summer. "[Michael]'s a very experienced captain and he's got the ability to see things that other people might not, so I'm certainly not going to be stubborn enough to say: 'I'm not going to listen to you Vaughany'."
It could, however, be a significantly changed team that takes the field for England on Thursday, especially if Flintoff, whose ankle was still causing him discomfort during practice, is forced to sit out his fifth consecutive home Test. With overcast, seaming conditions predicted, England are likely to back a four-bowler strategy and bring Owais Shah into the middle-order, while Monty Panesar - England's cause celebre of the winter - could quite legitimately be made the fall-guy unless Moores feels the need to make a statement in his first game in charge. "There's going to be moisture, and it'll swing if it's overcast," said Strauss. "It's an option, although as a general rule it's good to have a spinner in your side. It gives you variety."
Tomorrow's toss ought to be a no-brainer if England win. They will surely bowl first and unleash the pace pairing of Steve Harmison and Matthew Hoggard, who - for contrasting reasons - have been out of action since the end of the Ashes campaign. Both have used the break well and have been in fine form for their counties, with Harmison especially menacing, having scalped 24 wickets in just three County Championship matches. He claims to have put his desperate tour of Australia and subsequent retirement from one-day cricket behind him, and he of all people epitomises the fresh start that Moores is hoping to usher in this month.
"Harmy is in a good place at the moment," said Moores, who has had a one-on-one with each of his new charges since taking the reins at the beginning of May, in a bid to "create an environment where people enjoy playing" - something that couldn't have been further from Harmison's gameplan during that sullen Ashes experience. "We've sat and talked, and he's more than warranted his selection. Enjoyment comes from winning and doing well as a sportsman, and on that side, he's bowled well in county cricket. He's knows his bowling and knows his game, and he has a lot to give to the team."
Harmison also knows how to stick it up the West Indians. He has taken 40 wickets in eight Tests against them, a haul that included his incredible 7 for 12 at Sabina Park in April 2004 and which led to him ascending - albeit briefly - to the top of the world bowling rankings. But Strauss, knowing full well how fragile his team-mate's confidence can be, wasn't about to hark back to those former glories. "What I expect from Steve Harmison is he bowls like he has this summer, "he said. "Clearly been doing the right things, with good pace and good control, and he looks happy with the way he's bowling."
West Indies have some pace prospects of their own. Fidel Edwards, another man who has been lying low during the World Cup, was singled out by Sarwan for his pace and vigour, while the swing specialist Corey Collymore can expect to thrive in the conditions, given the opportunity. "We've got no big superstars, it's just a matter of playing basic cricket and getting it right," added Sarwan, who cited the glamour-free uber-professional New Zealanders as the inspiration for his team's new era. Maybe that 11.30 curfew is having some effect after all.
Either way, it is hard to imagine how England - with or without Flintoff - can fail to get back on track this week. Although both teams are in a process of rebuilding, the vibe being emitted from the West Indian camp is one of discontent and ever-so-mild dissent, as epitomised by Chris Gayle's grumblings about his early bedtime. Their opponents, on the other hand, seem rather more determined to prove they are still worthy of their world Test ranking of No. 2, the only accolade they managed to retain this winter. "It's important we learn the lessons and challenge ourselves to improve," said Strauss. "This is the start of that process. If the guys aren't excited and motivated in this Test match, they never will be."
England (probable) 1 Andrew Strauss (capt), 2 Alastair Cook, 3 Ian Bell, 4 Kevin Pietersen, 5 Paul Collingwood, 6 Owais Shah, 7 Matt Prior (wk), 8 Liam Plunkett, 9 Steve Harmison, 10 Matthew Hoggard, 11 James Anderson.
West Indies (probable) 1 Chris Gayle, 2 Daren Ganga, 3 Devon Smith, 4 Ramnaresh Sarwan (capt), 5 Shivnarine Chanderpaul, 6 Runako Morton, 7 Dwayne Bravo, 8 Denesh Ramdin (wk), 9 Daren Powell, 10 Corey Collymore, 11 Jerome Taylor.
A collection of fine cricket writing on great cricket feats, and never mind the omissions
Plays of the Day from the first ODI between South Africa and India in Johannesburg