England v West Indies, 3rd Test, Old Trafford June 7, 2007

Looking for straws to grasp

Shivnarine Chanderpaul's presence in the middle order was badly missed at Leeds © MCC

For a team that sustained the heaviest defeat in its long history to the same opposition only 10 days back - conceding over 500 runs in both Tests - West Indies will snatch at any available straw. Tenuous as they are, a few have presented themselves in advance of the third Test starting at Old Trafford tomorrow.

The weather has changed from polar to tropical and runs have been made, wickets taken and long spells enjoyed in warm sunshine, albeit in a leisurely three-day match inbetween Tests.

Even though Ramnaresh Sarwan is back home attending to the injured shoulder that forced him out of the entire series, the experienced and reliable Shivnarine Chanderpaul has recovered from his knee injury and can resume his essential place in the middle order, so badly missed at Leeds. Chris Gayle, who damaged a rib muscle in the intervening match, too has recovered.

There has even been a little help from the other side. Michael Vaughan, the England captain, has created a distraction for England with some ill-timed, and widely condemned comments on the effect of Andrew Flintoff's high jinks during the World Cup on team morale. It will take more than a little straw to suddenly make West Indies strong again but these few might render them less compliant than they were.

An MCC XI, made up almost exclusively of eager but anonymous university students, bore no resemblance to the intimidating task expected over the coming days. All the same, most West Indies players used the chance for match practice with both bat and ball.

Runako Morton's double hundred and Denesh Ramdin's ton surely raised the confidence of two players for whom it is more essential than most. And Fidel Edwards and Darren Sammy appreciated lengthy spells in their first chance in the middle since arriving in England over a month ago. To the English media and perhaps even to the England dressing room, such developments are irrelevant. Both appear certain of a repetition of the ruthlessness of Leeds and another thumping victory.

It is Vaughan's assertion that Flintoff's much publicised, inebriated escapade on a paddle boat in St Lucia in the early hours of the morning after the first round loss to New Zealand in the World Cup that has attracted most attention. Flintoff's weak ankle that required a second operation this week has put him out of the series but he remains an immensely popular cricketer in England, especially in Manchester where he plays his county cricket for Lancashire.

Vaughan's quote in a newspaper interview on Monday that the St Lucia incident "did affect morale" and "changed the whole atmosphere in the camp" has drawn widespread censure, especially from Jim Cumbes, Lancashire's chief executive.

Vaughan was yesterday engaged in the kind of damage control at which shrewd politicians are so adept, claiming he had been misquoted and misrepresented. But he is unlikely to be welcomed by the Lancastrian crowd today as he was in the previous Test at his home ground at Headingley. Even if they kidnap Vaughan and hold him hostage, however, it would make little impression on the gap, in every area, that has emerged in the first two Tests.

Six England batsmen have helped themselves to hundreds already, the devastating Kevin Pietersen a double. The only West Indian hundreds have been to bowlers, four in the first Test, three in the second.

For all the West Indies collapses at Leeds for 146 and 141, there were extenuating circumstances - the absence of Chanderpaul and Sarwan, the bowler-friendly conditions, the weather. It was their bowling and fielding that were more shocking in both instances. Lord's, where they totaled 437 and 89 without loss, was a more accurate guide to their capacity on a true pitch. Old Trafford's is dry and rock hard but if its character resembles last year's Test against Pakistan, pace and bounce, rather than swing and seam, will be the problem. Steve Harmison took 11 for 77 in the match as Pakistan - Inzamam, Mohammad Yousuf, Younis Khan and all - were toppled for 119 and 222, losing by an innings and 120 runs.

The present West Indies fast bowlers struggle to take 11 wickets in a series, far less a match, and a change in the trio so far used - Jerome Taylor, Daren Powell and Corey Collymore - is necessary. Edwards, who reportedly generated genuine pace on a benign pitch against the MCC, would add bite, but control is also required to prevent England's batting romping along at five runs an over.

Ravi Rampaul might have provided it but he broke down after 21 balls in his only bowl last Saturday. A case might be made for Sammy but where would be fit in?

The straws are welcome but the problems won't go away.