Two decades after the successive "blackwash" series that marked the high tide of Caribbean cricketing dominance, England completed a double rout of their own over West Indies so easily that English cricket lovers who had grown stoical in defeat started to take winning for granted. Having won a four-Test away series 3-0 earlier in the year, England swept the four at home, with Michael Vaughan's leadership of a relatively young team growing in skill and conviction all the time. Though he still lacked experience against hardened opposition from Australia and India, his team was beginning to expect to win even when the going was toughest.
The outlines of the two series were similar, England retaining the Wisden Trophy at the earliest opportunity. However, this time West Indian consolation was to come, not with one mega-innings from their captain Brian Lara, but in the one-day tournament that followed. West Indies' problem was that Lara had no confidence in this team, while his players, awed or fearful, were distanced from him and lacked confidence in themselves. There were talented young cricketers in the squad but, with one exception, they did not develop. It was emblematic of West Indies' predicament that, while the team and its managers criss-crossed England in a distinctively decorated bus, Lara usually travelled in a silver Mercedes lent him by an admirer.
They were destined not just to lose the series, but to be humiliated in a country where whole generations of cricket-lovers had grown up believing West Indies were invincible. Before the final Test, Lara came up with the notion that his side commonly restored their pride in the last match of a series they had already lost. In fact, they were blown away at The Oval. It was a whitewash.
The selectors relied on three inexperienced pace bowlers - Tino Best, Fidel Edwards and Jermaine Lawson - who, at 22, were still wet behind the ears. Corey Collymore, the only medium-fast bowler with experience of English wickets as a county overseas player, was originally left at home. They also gave a chance to even younger players, such as Dwayne Bravo and Dwayne Smith. It was a fragile-looking outfit that would need good leadership, great application and a lot of luck. But the tour had a poor start, even before the team left home. Sir Vivian Richards, the chairman of selectors, had been accused of being an unsympathetic role model by some young players, and quit. Instead of spending the summer inside their tent and, in Lyndon Johnson's phrase, pissing out, he took a broadcast commentary job and regularly, but not unjustly, pissed in. Gus Logie's lack of authority as coach was clear from the start, and six weeks after the series he was gone. Tony Howard, the manager with the stern manner of a Barbadian preacher, promised he would make sure the young men behaved themselves. There were no scandals, though the players did spend much time at receptions ignoring their English hosts and chattering on mobile phones.
One early lesson for young West Indians with no experience of county cricket is that it can rain a lot in England in June. (Although the weather remained unusually wet, only one full day was lost during the Tests - in Manchester.) In the one-day tournament before the Tests, two of West Indies' games were washed away, but they reached the final against New Zealand by beating England at Lord's in the game that mattered most to them.
It was a splendid affair, with brilliant centuries from Andrew Flintoff and Chris Gayle; to have won by seven wickets chasing 286 encouraged them to treat this one-day international as an augury for the Test series.
Before the First Test at Lord's, Lara tried to inflict a psychological wound on England. Vaughan, he said, turned to Steve Harmison whenever he needed a wicket, but he questioned whether Harmison could last the whole summer: "I don't know if they have a Plan B," he said. It did not take long to find out. Before the game began, Lara wounded himself.
The forecast was good but the morning was overcast and the ball might swing for an hour or two. He asked England to bat. The decision radiated unease. Did he fear for his top order against England's young pace bowlers in English conditions? If so, West Indies' best batsmen would interpret the decision as a vote of no confidence. Whatever the reasoning, it was a serious error, and the first round went to England without a ball bowled. By the close of play, Best had taken one for 75 off 16 overs, Edwards none for 60 off 15. On the second day, Bravo and Pedro Collins picked up some wickets, but it had been a harrowing experience for them. Best bowled only three overs in the second innings and went home with a back injury after the Second Test at Edgbaston, where Edwards was omitted.
West Indies' first-choice attack had disintegrated before England started their second innings at Lord's. Collymore was called up, but he could not be expected to put it together again. Lara had begun the series with an average against England of 67.97. Now he owed his team one of his command performances: Daryl Harper, who mistakenly gave him caught behind when he was 11, prevented this in the first innings at Lord's, but a focused, highly concentrated performance on the final day might well have scrambled a draw. Instead, Lara went down the wicket to Ashley Giles and was beaten by a sharply turning ball that bowled him between bat and pad for 44, his second-best score at Lord's, where he had raised his average in three Tests to a mere 21.
It was scant consolation that Harmison's match figures were two for 150, because England's Plan B was the improbable figure of Giles, who took nine for 210 with his left-arm spin. Lara had lost something more than one Test. At Edgbaston, he was looking like his old self, and had reached 95 in a stand of 209 with Ramnaresh Sarwan. But Flintoff was bowling fast, and forcing Lara to make exaggerated foot movements across his stumps. He was finally drawn outside the off stump, where the bat flashed and edged a catch to second slip. Flintoff, who dismissed Lara for nought and seven in the Third Test at Old Trafford, had his measure. His only other innings of more than 50 was 79 in the final Test at The Oval. That was scored when all around him were losing their heads, and he managed to lose his last.
In eight innings in four Tests, one of the world's greatest-ever batsmen scored 264 runs, averaging 33. He was a disappointment to the audience, his colleagues and, presumably, himself. It was a shortfall that even Chanderpaul and Gayle, both of whom scored more heavily than any of the English batsmen, could not make up. Sarwan came and went, but Bravo at No. 6 performed manfully for a young lad.
Even more impressive, he was the tourists' top wicket-taker with 16 at 26.18. He was the one West Indian who was a better cricketer by the end of the summer. The performance of the bowlers was neatly encapsulated in the series averages, which were headed by Gayle, the opening bat, and Bravo. Of the pace attack, of whom so much had been hoped, only Collins managed ten wickets. But the poor bowlers had little help from Lara's field placing.
When Flintoff entered, the fielders retreated: evidence of how much they feared him. When tailenders cut loose, Lara persisted with tired mediumpacers. Gayle's slow off-spin proved hard to score off, but Lara was perversely reluctant to bowl him. The predicament of the team showed in the successive first-innings scores: 416, 336, 395 and 152. England, on the other hand, scored 568, 566, 330 and 470. Their only hiccough occurred at Old Trafford, where they were 65 behind on first innings. By the time they arrived at The Oval, West Indies were little more than a foil to set off compelling England performances.
When Lara was caught at slip in the second innings, he received an ovation signifying regret that this would probably be his last Test in England, where his genius had been revealed so intermittently. It also looked like his last Test as captain. England's batsmen scored eight hundreds, five more than in the West Indies. Vaughan, who had had a disappointing series with the bat against New Zealand, proved to himself that he could still score hundreds, with a brace at Lord's. He seemed to make runs when the team needed them most. Marcus Trescothick repeated the feat at Edgbaston, but his capricious approach to batting produced only 107 more runs in six innings. Andrew Strauss confirmed his place with his second Lord's Test hundred of the summer. Graham Thorpe buckled down at Old Trafford, when the team needed him to stay at the crease and score a hundred; it compensated for his increasingly unreliable and slow performances in the field.
With a ginger beard, Andrew Flintoff looked like the young Siegfried, playing utterly without fear. His 167 at Edgbaston was the memorable performance of the series. The most decisive innings, however, was by Robert Key. Not his 221 at Lord's, but at Old Trafford, where he mocked West Indies' transitory hope of victory with a well-judged 93 out of 231 for three.
When Thorpe was injured, Ian Bell made a purposeful debut at The Oval. Obviously, not all of them succeeded all the time, but two or three of the top order always did. These were heady days. The only competition for places in a settled team was between James Anderson and Simon Jones for the last position in the attack. After the First Test, it went to Anderson. All the bowlers took wickets, and Giles surprised himself and his friends with 22. Flintoff moved on to play an offensive role, which was good timing, because he and Matthew Hoggard were indeed required as Plan B when Harmison's brilliant form briefly deserted him.
Harmison took four for 337 in the first five innings of the series, and then bared his teeth again, taking 13 for 165 in the final three. There were no glaring weaknesses, and the only serious blemish was the fielding, and specifically the clumsiness of Geraint Jones behind the stumps. Although he had a quiet series at No. 7, he had earned his batting place; but there was no improvement in his principal role. The ground fielding was quick and neat, but chances were let slip by Thorpe, and Vaughan dropped a catch at Edgbaston so easy he quite forgot how to take it. During this summer, Vaughan finally established a distinctive style of leadership: less driven than Nasser Hussain, and less judgmental.
He was fortunate to inherit a side that had become more competitive, more reluctant to admit defeat, and with a developing self-belief. He nurtured these properties, and the team's confidence in him grew. They evidently liked playing for him. Vaughan's field placing showed a nice fusion of attack and defence, and his pace bowlers responded well to working in fairly short bursts. On the field, his body language was sympathetic. Off the field, he communicated freely with journalists without ever committing himself to strong opinions. He had established himself as England's leader; but his skill and resilience remained to be proved at the highest level of Test cricket.
Match reports for
Tour Match: Sussex v West Indians at Hove, Jun 19, 2004
Tour Match: Kent v West Indians at Beckenham, Jun 21, 2004
Tour Match: Middlesex v West Indians at Shenley, Jun 23, 2004
Tour Match: Marylebone Cricket Club v West Indians at Arundel, Jul 13-15, 2004
Tour Match: Sri Lanka A v West Indians at Shenley, Jul 17-19, 2004
Tour Match: Derbyshire v West Indians at Derby, Aug 5-7, 2004
Match reports for
Tour Match: Ireland v West Indians at Belfast, Jun 16, 2004
Tour Match: Ireland v West Indians at Belfast, Jun 17, 2004