An unloved anomaly of a series
In terms of the baubles up for grabs in English Cricket's Biggest Summer Ever ™, the Wisden Trophy languishes a distant third behind its glitzier companions, the Ashes and the ICC World Twenty20. In fact, for the average English sports fan, distracted by the culmination of the football season and notwithstanding the improbable heatwave that has settled over London in recent weeks, a start date of May 6 is simply too early to elicit a reaction.
Lord's is likely to be little more than half-full for the opening day of the series, a situation that is unlikely to have been helped by the unfamiliar Wednesday scheduling. And to judge by the late arrival of Chris Gayle, West Indies' spectacularly laid-back captain, it is not only the spectators who have been caught unawares by the earliest starting date in England's home Test history. "I'm happy he's here," said a terse coach, John Dyson, after his skipper linked up with the squad with 48 hours to spare, though you have to wonder whether those sentiments were entirely shared by the man himself.
So much for the primacy of Test cricket. This is a series that exists only to satisfy the contractual demands of the host broadcasting company, and had West Indies joined Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka in pulling out of what is proving to be a very problematic slot, then Bangladesh or the homeless Pakistanis would presumably have been rustled up in their stead. The encroaching demands of the IPL mean that in future years a window in the international schedule will surely be agreed, which in turn will bring to an end the opportunity for Test cricket in England in May. On the available evidence, few will mourn the passing of this peculiar nine-year tradition.
Nevertheless, for Andrew Strauss and his England team, chastened and revamped after a winter to forget for any multitude of reasons, beggars cannot really be choosers. Since defeating Bangladesh on this very ground in May 2005, they have failed to record a victory in the opening Test of a series for four years and 14 rubbers, a devastating shortcoming that has been instrumental in their decline as a leading power in the world game.
Not since England began clawing their way back from the bottom of the pile after losing to New Zealand in 1999 have they been ranked lower than their current standing of sixth. Since hitting the heights in the summer of 2005, the only thing graceful about their cricket has been the glider-like tranquillity of their descent. It has been slow, swooping and seemingly without a care in the world, or an end in sight. Until now that is, with the unveiling of a new-look team that might just have the wherewithal to hit the ground at long last, and embark on a new take-off run.
"The attitude and environment is fantastic at the moment," said Strauss. "The one advantage of having a few new faces around is that you get that exuberance. Those of us who've been around a while appreciate it's a massive thing to play for England, because the excitement of the new faces in the squad rubs off on all of us."
The tacit admission in Strauss's statement was that England's previous crop of players had forgotten how privileged they were, or how to enjoy the experience. He named no names, but the absence of men such as Steve Harmison and Ian Bell, whose talents were self-evident but whose tickers were called into question on a daily basis, has doubtless played as much of a part in the wake-up call as the inclusion of young thrusters such as Graham Onions and Tim Bresnan.
And then there is Ravi Bopara, whose selection at No. 3 has the makings of a masterstroke, in that it has quashed the tired old debate about the relative merits of Bell, Michael Vaughan and Owais Shah in that perpetually problematic position. "Ravi is a very impressive individual, both in terms of the talent he has but also how he handles himself," said Strauss. "He's very unfazed by things, and that more than anything leads me to believe he can play at No. 3. He's got the technique, he's got a very good mindset, and he's a good little character. That's what we are looking for, characters who when the going gets tough will come out and perform."
Nevertheless, hard as England try to lift their game at the start of a new season, still the thorny issue of the IPL threatens to prick their bubble of optimism. Andy Flower, whose influence on this squad selection is unmistakeable, admitted on Monday that his middle-order trio of Bopara, Kevin Pietersen and Paul Collingwood were "under-prepared" after their sojourns in South Africa, no-one more so than Collingwood, who sat on the bench throughout his stint with the Delhi Daredevils and has not played competitively since April 3.
Strauss felt sure they could overcome the lack of preparation by adopting a positive mindset, but even so, the conflicts of interests on show in this series are palpable. Writing in the June edition of the Wisden Cricketer, Collingwood admitted that the draw of the shorter format will only become more alluring as the rewards become greater. "If you can get 10 times the money for playing a few weeks of Twenty20 than for months of mental torture in the Ashes," he wrote, "then I'm afraid to say some people would take the first option."
Gayle has already given the impression he'd rather be elsewhere, while even Bopara, the highest-profile representative of England's next generation, has admitted to divided priorities where the relative merits of Test and Twenty20 cricket are concerned. "I remember four or five years ago, Twenty20 was regarded as a Mickey Mouse competition," he told Cricinfo, "but now it is one of the biggest things around. Test cricket is still regarded as the pinnacle, but I want to be good at both, because Twenty20 is what everybody is talking about."
And it's what everyone is talking about even on the eve of a Lord's Test, despite Strauss's best efforts to steer the conversation. "From our point of view these are two massive Test matches. Given what happened in the West Indies, we're looking for revenge, we want to win back that Wisden Trophy, and in our conditions it's important we believe we can beat anyone."
That may be so, but from the point of view of the average fan in the street, these Tests are anomalies, fool's gold ahead of the nuggets that await later in the season. It's a far cry from the situation at the start of Duncan Fletcher's reign in 2000, when England's recapturing of the Wisden Trophy after a three-decade hiatus was the result that set in motion their slow but inexorable renaissance.
This time around, for three decades, read two months - a self-defeatingly hasty turnaround. For all their new looks and new attitudes, England are damned if they do and damned if they don't in the coming fortnight. In the public perception, failure to win in home conditions would be a disgrace, but success - never mind how fleeting it has been in recent times - is likely to be met with a shrug of the shoulders. After all, there's only one series that counts this summer, isn't there?
"They are under a bit of pressure to do well leading up to the Ashes," said Gayle, prodding the sore just that little bit more. Never mind all the criticism that he has attracted for his late arrival for this contest, at least he made it through customs in the nick of time (having honed his technique for the one campaign that will really matter to his own fans back home - next month's ICC World Twenty20).
As for the England cricket team (who are expected to go missing in that tournament just surely as Collingwood, their Twenty20 captain, went missing in the IPL) we are still waiting for them to turn up for the first time since that glorious but isolated triumph four long and fruitless years ago. Which begs the question, exactly whose priorities are the ones that are skewed?
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo