After an abnormally long gap of six years, England and West Indies will today resume their Caribbean hostilities in Kingston, Jamaica amid widespread expectations of a closely fought series. While the recapture of the Wisden Trophy at home in 2000 will do no harm to England's confidence, they know that the West Indies are invariably harder to beat on their own patch.

Just five of the 22 players who began that infamous and quickly aborted match at Sabina Park in 1998 will feature, and the bowling attacks are entirely different. Time or injury have accounted for Andy Caddick, Angus Fraser, Dean Headley and Phil Tufnell, and no less significantly those great purveyors of speed, Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh.

Then as now Brian Lara captained the hosts, while England's middle order again consists of Mark Butcher, Nasser Hussain and Graham Thorpe. There is a solid look to each batting line-up, and the outcome may well hinge on the progress made by the less experienced bowlers.



Duncan Fletcher - pondering final XI
(c) Getty Images


In Ashley Giles, who is sure to play, the tourists have the most seasoned bowler on either side. The England coach, Duncan Fletcher, has already indicated that Stephen Harmison and Simon Jones are inked in too. The final place therefore rests between Matthew Hoggard and James Anderson, both of whom took wickets in the opening match of the tour.

"We're going to go with a spinner and four quickies," Fletcher said. "The big decision is between Anderson and Hoggard."

Recent history points strongly in the West Indies' favour, as they are unbeaten in their last five Tests at Sabina Park. However Fletcher believes that if England's experienced batsmen can deliver, there is a real chance of making a winning start to the series.

"It's important to get a good result out of this first Test. It's going to be tight - when you look at how strong their record is in Jamaica they haven't lost here in the last five Tests, beating the top sides," Fletcher added.

"But there's always a first time, and we really believe we've got a bit of a chance here - as long as we bat well and we get a score to help the bowlers along. Those young bowlers have been bowling well and have really impressed me with the lines they've been bowling which they haven't done on previous tours."



Brian Lara - full of confidence
(c) Getty Images


England know that the man they must contain above all others is the West Indies captain, who had an ominous message for his opponents this week. He feels he is a better player than when he broke Sir Garry Sobers' world-record score of 365 not out in Antigua a decade ago.

"I am mentally stronger, far more mature and less of a flash in the pan, which is what some people thought then," Lara said. "I am looking forward to surpassing what I did ten years ago - not perhaps in terms of runs, but in terms of worth.

"This is a special series for me because it may be my last series against England at home. But most importantly it is because the Wisden Trophy is not in our hands. It hurt to lose it to England in 2000, having held it for such a long period of time. England are our biggest rivals and this was a bitter moment, not only for myself, but also for all the other members of the team.

"I realised England were our number one foe in world sport on my first tour of England in 1991. Sir Vivian Richards was captain of the West Indies and I immediately got a feeling of the competition that existed between the two teams. The trophy is currently in England's hands and we will be fighting to get it back."



Michael Vaughan - key batsman
(c) Getty Images


England's captain is under no illusion about the reality of the threat posed by the West Indies' top batsman.

"You'd have to suggest that the key wicket is Brian Lara with his record and that he's the world number one-rated batsman," Michael Vaughan conceded. "Brian is a tremendous player, but their top seven is as good as most top sevens around the world at the minute.

"They are on their home soil and are used to batting in these conditions. But both bowling attacks are inexperienced, and it's going to be a huge test of our attack to pit themselves against that batting line-up.

"It's going to be a hard and competitive series, but I think it's going to be exciting. All the new players are going to have to get used to it quickly - the excitable crowds and the conditions and also bowling at Brian Lara on his home soil."

Highly rated by his opponents, Vaughan may conceivably have as pivotal role to play in the series as his opposite number. If he can build on the electrifying start he has made to the tour with the bat, the Barmy Army will be joyous indeed.