West Indies in England 2004 July 15, 2004

Why waste the warm-ups?

Why can't England make more effort in tour matches, asks Andrew Miller

Brian Lara - not happy with the standard of his opposition © Getty Images

After rising off his sickbed to smack an 89-ball hundred on Tuesday, there was more than a touch of gamesmanship about Brian Lara's comments at the end of the first day's play at Arundel. But not without some justification. "With the Tests coming up we expected a bit more competition," he told the press, as West Indies closed on 373 for 6 against a curate's egg of an MCC side. "I'm a bit disappointed with the 11 guys that played."

Frankly, he wasn't the only one. When it was announced, last week, that four pivotal members of England's Test squad would be turning out in MCC colours, it seemed for a moment that an international touring side was about to be given the respect it deserved, and an opposition worthy of the occasion. But Mark Butcher pulled up lame before the event, and though Matthew Hoggard, Simon Jones and Graham Thorpe have all used the past couple of days to hand out a few "calling cards", the overall impression of the match has been underwhelming.

At least, one or two of MCC's selections are justified. Under the circumstances, there can be no quibbling about the identity of the home team captain: John Stephenson, MCC's new head of cricket, whose veteran status (one England cap, way back in 1989) is nicely offset by the inclusion of Alistair Cook, England's Under-19 captain and a probable senior international in the foreseeable future.

But thereafter things go somewhat awry - two sometime South African internationals in Dale Benkenstein and Charl Willoughby; two probable future ones in Sven Koenig and Riki Wessels (Kepler's lad), plus England's 34-year-old former spinner, Min Patel. At least Michael J Powell is a name that features in England's current plans, although on closer inspection, he turns out not to be the recently called-up Glamorgan batsman, but the yet-to-be-turned-to Warwickshire version. Perhaps the selectors hoped no-one would notice.

Such a state of affairs does no-one any favours, and a quick glance at the scorecard confirms the deep flaws in the performances of both sides. West Indies somehow remain in command, despite owing everything to three players - Lara, Chris Gayle and Devon Smith - while the shortcomings in their bowling have been masked by MCC's carefree collapse, which culminated in a three-wicket over for Dwayne Smith's medium-pace.

For a long time now, there has been something lacking about England's attitude to warm-up matches, both at home and away. In the Caribbean earlier this year, they routinely requested to play 12 men a side, which automatically scuppered the first-class status of the game, while at home, such fixtures have long been an excuse to rest key players. The Australians, for one, have never understood that attitude - you wouldn't find many Aussie state sides going easy on their visitors, because Down Under, it is seen as a patriotic duty to inflict as many psychological wounds as possible on the tourists.

In fact, there are currently two international sides touring England, and next week they meet in a tasty three-day match at Shenley. Sri Lanka A are on a roll at the moment, with seven wins out of seven to their name (albeit against similarly understrength opposition), and they will surely provide West Indies with the stern workout that Lara has been demanding. But it is nonetheless a shame that, in both warm-ups, English cricket is relying heavily on imported players.

Understandably, the conflicting demands of the Twenty20 Cup mean that several counties are reluctant to release their stars, but England will never develop the strength in depth that they so desperately need if they pass up all these opportunities to practise against international opposition. Last week, 30 players were named in the short-list for the Champions Trophy, of whom at least two-thirds have the capacity to play Test cricket as well. And yet, if they all sit around in a pile until September, the wheat is never going to be separated from the chaff.

As for West Indies, it would be dangerous to write off their prospects for this series just yet. They have already embarrassed England once this summer, and after the traumas of the defeat in the Caribbean, their thirst for revenge can only be fuelled with every perceived slight they receive. The website Caribbeancricket.com has already spoken of the ECB's "disrespectful" treatment of the squad when they first landed in the country. As England have learned to their cost in the past, it doesn't pay to get Brian Lara's back up.

Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo. His English View will appear here every Thursday.