Walsh hopeful for new generation
When Courtney Walsh walked off The Oval arm-in-arm with his fellow fast-bowling destroyer Curtly Ambrose in 2000, West Indies had all but relinquished their long hold on the Wisden Trophy. The two great fast bowlers had done all they could try and stave off defeat, but a day later West Indies folded and a great era was officially over.
As Walsh and Ambrose walked into bat on the final day they were both given a guard of honour by the England players. Ambrose bowed out of international cricket after the defeat, but Walsh played on for another seven months as he tried to carry a failing West Indies team. "It was an emotional day," Walsh, these days an ambassador for Sky Sports, told Cricinfo, "to walk off with Curtly like that to a standing ovation. I'll always remember that day. But they were mixed emotions because we were losing."
Nine years later West Indies once again return to English shores as holders of the Wisden Trophy following their hard-fought 1-0 victory in the Caribbean less than two months ago. Nobody wants to shout it from the rooftops, because there have been so many hard times, but there are signs that West Indies cricket is slowly turning a corner although Walsh remains cautious about their chances in this series.
"It wouldn't say it's makes them favourites because England are a very good side at home," Walsh said. "West Indies aren't accustomed to conditions at this time in the season and it's going to be pretty cold for them. Quite a few of the team haven't played there before so I think England start favourites. But West Indies can still be reasonably confident because of what happened in the Caribbean and the sort of cricket they've been playing in the last few months.
"It will be a true test of character, a true test of how far they have developed and a true test of how much they have learnt. They will need to show consistency and expertise because conditions won't be what they are accustomed to with different weather and different pitches.
"The team will miss Dwayne Bravo who has been there before and a lot is on the shoulders of Chris Gayle, Ramnaresh Sarwan and Shivnarine Chanderpaul. Brendan Nash was a good find in the Caribbean, but I'm not too sure how he'll cope in English conditions. It's going to be a testing time for them all."
From a region that produced an endless list of fast bowlers, of which Walsh was one of finest and longest-serving, it has warmed the heart of many cricket fans to see that West Indies' upturn in fortunes has been spearheaded by two exciting quicks. Jerome Taylor and Fidel Edwards are not out of the old-school mould of being six-foot plus, but are still quite capable of causing serious problems.
Taylor wrote himself a place in West Indies history as he helped tear out England for 51 at Sabina Park, the spell that effectively sealed the recent series, but by the end of the contest in Trinidad he was on the sidelines and his fellow quick, Edwards, was the one making the visitors sit up. One brief spell, on the fourth evening at the Queen's Park Oval, was as hostile as anything in recent memory as he almost decapitated Kevin Pietersen. For Walsh, a man who caused batsmen more than his fair share of sleepless nights, it has been welcome viewing.
"They both bowled very well and it was pleasing to see," he said. "Taylor's performance in Jamaica was especially good to watch because it had been so long since West Indies fans had been able to watch their team do that. People shouldn't get carried away, but if both can stay fit they can lead West Indies for the next few years.
"I think they hold the key for West Indies in this series. Conditions should suit them with the ball moving around and if the pitches have some pace and bounce to go along with the movement they will be handful."
However, despite improvements on the field, life in West Indies cricket is never simple. They have warmed up for this Test series without their captain, Chris Gayle, who has never been quiet about his displeasure at this tour being crammed in the schedule, and arrived two days before the Lord's Test. Then there were the contract wrangles that threatened to hit the end of England's recent visit. The history of West Indies cricket is littered with such disputes - barely a tour goes by without WIPA getting heavily involved - and even improved success on the field doesn't appear to make problems go away.
Life seemed so much simpler in Walsh's time. Of course there were problems, but the fact that West Indies were winning most of the time helped ease any tensions. Walsh dearly hopes West Indies cricket can move past the bickering and do what is best for their game.
"It's a real shame and it always seems to come up when the team is doing pretty well," he said. "From a former players' point of view and someone who is involved with the cricket committee I would love to see the team be able to concentrate on what they do on the field and we can do whatever deals need to be done with a little more diplomacy. It's important to sort out problems before they raise their head in the middle of a series."
If West Indies can maintain their focus on the field over the next couple of weeks they could cause England further problems. It has taken them nine years to get their hands back on the Wisden Trophy and Walsh doesn't want to see it passed back. "We held it for a long time and it was painful to lose it. Now it's back, I hope it stays with West Indies for a while yet."
Andrew McGlashan is assistant editor of Cricinfo