West Indies v England, 4th Test, Barbados February 26, 2009

Settled West Indies eye trophy

For a change, West Indies are ahead in the series and the issues of unfitness, absenteeism and leadership that have stalked them in recent times are now attending their opponents


England have been weakened by the loss of Andrew Flintoff © AFP
 

West Indies find themselves in an unfamiliar position entering today's Test at Kensington Oval. For a change, they are ahead in the series and the issues of unfitness, absenteeism and leadership that have stalked them in recent times are now attending their opponents.

A shift in self-confidence, another irritant they seemed unable to overcome during their decade of decline, is also evident. What doubts there are now lie with England.

Andrew Flintoff's strained hip muscle, the latest setback in a medical history that would fill several episodes of 'Grey's Anatomy', has eliminated their talisman from a match that is likely to determine the outcome of the series.

His influence is such that Shane Warne commented on Wednesday that if he doesn't play in the Ashes series in the summer, "Australia will win, no doubt". It was a typical case of Aussie hyperbole but, whether in the Ashes or at Kensington over the next five days, England are undeniably weaker without him.

No sooner than his absence was confirmed than Matt Prior, the highly accomplished No. 7 who also keeps wicket on the side, hopped on a flight back to London to be with his wife who had given birth to the couple's first child, a son, a day earlier.

It is the modern way - the present captain Andrew Strauss and the South African Shaun Pollock are among others who have interrupted tours for paternity leave - but it hardly does anything for team unity when his replacement, Tim Ambrose, is told it is a stop-gap measure until Prior can tear himself away from the little one and return for the final Test in Port of Spain.

As it is, the two have engaged in the cricketing version of musical chairs over the past two years - Prior out, Ambrose in, Ambrose out, Prior in. Competition is good but, in such circumstances, it can be divisive.

England's reservations extend to a piece of floating bone in the right elbow of Graeme Swann whose eight wickets at the ARG were reward for quality off-spin bowling. He has postponed the required surgery but, even though he has declared himself fit enough to play, it is hardly the ideal situation.

West Indies can relate to all such upheavals. Over the past two years they have been repeatedly diminished by injuries and illnesses to key men, although not yet by any new-born babies. That day will, no doubt, soon arrive.

Over the period, Ramnaresh Sarwan, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Chris Gayle and Dwayne Bravo have all missed matches, or parts of them, at critical times. On this occasion, Bravo, an allrounder as important to the balance and energy of the West Indies as Flintoff is to England, remains unavailable while his right ankle mends after surgery. All the others are fit, in form and now believing they can win.

Such contrasts extend to the captaincy. The controversy over Gayle's elevation to the helm for West Indies in 2007 has been simulated by Strauss's hurried replacement of Kevin Pietersen a fortnight before England touched down in the Caribbean, and the predictable aftermath. Gayle is now well established in the position. He has scored hundreds in two of his last four Test innings and three in his last eight ODIs and is undefeated as captain for five Tests.

In his first match back at the helm, Strauss presided over the 51 all out loss at Sabina Park. It was an experience that might have prompted his unnecessarily delayed declaration in the following Test in Antigua. Even after his own commanding 169 in the first innings there, it suggested a captain still unsure of himself and his team.

The core question over the coming five days is whether West Indies can capitalise on such a favourable state of affairs. The answer will divulge just how far they are on the road back to respectability.

Tony Cozier has written about and commentated on cricket in the Caribbean for nearly 50 years