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February 25, 2009
For the second winter running, England are faced with needing to win back-to-back Tests to take a series they were favourites to secure from the outset. Last year it was New Zealand and they successfully rallied in Wellington and Napier, now they need to do it again starting in Bridgetown.
Expectations in some quarters were too high for England when the series began. They had arrived on the back of huge internal ructions and the true test was going to be when the action began. Jamaica was a humbling experience, but they appeared set to level the contest last week in Antigua until denied by West Indies' tail. After working so hard for five days, it was another bitter pill for this team to swallow. They are just about holding things together, but victory now is the only option.
It isn't, therefore, a good time to be struck by injury and absentees. The bowling attack is rickety at best with Andrew Flintoff out and the trio of Graeme Swann, Ryan Sidebottom and Steve Harmison all carrying niggles of varying degrees, while Matt Prior has flown home after the birth of his first child. Andrew Strauss will have everything crossed that no one pulls up during this game because it would leave him desperately short.
"We've had to play without him [Flintoff] quite a lot over the last few years and if you rest all your hopes on one man, sometimes the rest of the team don't take the responsibility they need to," Strauss said. "We've found when he hasn't played before the bowlers have stood up and performed and the batting unit has performed pretty well as well, so there is no reason we can't win.
"We'd love him in the side but I don't think that it affects our chances of winning. I still think we have a very good chance of winning with the bowlers we've got. "
Flintoff's spot at No. 6 is a shootout between Ian Bell and Ravi Bopara with the latter the favourite - Prior would have been an option, but Tim Ambrose would be exposed. Bell was dropped because he was struggling both with form and his mental approach. One week hasn't made any difference to that, while Bopara has come in with fresh spirit despite a marathon journey from New Zealand. He was worked hard to get back into this position, churning out runs for Essex in all cricket after a tough experience in Sri Lanka.
Those three Tests brought him just 42 runs in five innings and his final dismissal was an embarrassing run-out from first slip. If he gets his chance, it will be an important opportunity to show those early outings were not a true reflection on his ability. He can offer a few overs as well which, while not being a wicket-taking threat, can at least rest the frontline options.
At any rate, Strauss is going to have to gamble. Swann was outstanding in Antigua and appears to have come through the practice days without too much pain in his right elbow. He will have plenty of bowling to do over the next five days, even though the surface at the Kensington Oval is expected, finally, to give the quicks something to smile at. A case of over to you Steve? If only it was that simple.
Trying to work out Harmison is an impossible task. It now seems a dream that he will recapture the form of 2004 and 2005, but England will be loathed to leave him out when finally presented with a surface that might suit him. He might be bowling for his future and he certainly should be.
"I think there are two ways of looking at Steve Harmison," Strauss said. "One is that he is frustrating and you don't always get the same level of performance out of him. The other is that he is a bowler and bowlers rely on rhythm that doesn't come as easily as people think.
"Generally with Steve, if he is bowling quick and with hostility then no batsman likes facing him. He knows what we want from him and I think he knows how to get there so it is up to him to put that work in."
Ryan Sidebottom is showing signs of recovering from his Achilles problem, but England's player of the year is a shadow of the bowler who collected 70 wickets in 15 Tests to the end of last summer's series against New Zealand. Since then the zippy swing - albeit in conditions that haven't offered much swing for anyone - has been absent and even his mop of hair seems less bouncy.
All is not lost, though. If England could have picked any ground in the Caribbean for a must-win encounter it would have been this one. They will have the vocal support of thousands of fans and their recent results here have been good. Their last defeat was in 1989-90, since when they have won in 1994 and 2004 while rain denied them a victory chance in 1998. Last time out Graham Thorpe's magnificent century, Flintoff's first five-wicket haul (he has only had one more since) and Matthew Hoggard's hat-trick sealed the series.
None of those three are here this time - Harmison will be the only survivor if he plays - but Strauss can draw comfort from his previous success as England captain. Against Pakistan in 2006, the series victory was achieved with a four-man attack so he knows it can be done.
The numbers actually suggest that England have had more success without Flintoff. They have played 42 Tests (excluding the 10-ball affair) since the 2005 Ashes, of which Flintoff has played and missed an equal amount. Of the 21 he has appeared in, England have won three, of the 21 he has missed they have won 10. Better off without Flintoff? It sounds fanciful, but we are about to find out.