Having laboured hard for no reward in Sri Lanka before Christmas, Michael Vaughan's promising England team arrived in the Caribbean in February 2004 and performed even better than Australia had the previous year. They won the first three Tests, then held on for a draw in the final game on a supine pitch in Antigua, after Brian Lara had regained his Test batting record. In the course of an astonishing display of skill and willpower, he became the first batsman to reach 400 in a Test innings.
The feat gained precious time for Lara and his team of ingénus but he himself said that, in the context of the series, "it was nothing to rant and rave about". That is a matter of opinion. The fact remains that in all too short a span - Test schedules these days allow no time for the old slowburning blue touchpaper that let a five-match series crackle into life - the dream that his side might bounce back from an embarrassing hammering in South Africa was shattered by a united touring team playing harder, more disciplined and more thoughtful cricket.
The unexpectedly lively pitches produced for the first three Tests - a reaction to the bland surfaces on which Australia had built huge totals the previous year - played into the hands of the best group of England fast bowlers to have toured together for a long time. Impressively led by Steve Harmison, easily the most influential bowler on either side, they were arguably the best pack since the briefly invincible years of the 1950s, and certainly since John Snow, Jeff Jones and David Brown led the attack on England's last triumphant tour here in 1967-68.
West Indies' weakness against fierce fast bowling on helpful pitches, a bitter taste of the medicine doled out in giant spoonfuls by their own teams of the 1980s and 1990s, had been apparent when they relinquished the Wisden Trophy to England in 2000. If the events of this tour reflected the continuing struggle by West Indian cricket to catch up with developments in the rest of the world more than a sustained England revival, they nevertheless represented a further step in England's own desperate quest: to win back the Ashes.
The missing elements for England were obvious enough before a ball was bowled: no established spinner other than Ashley Giles, a reliable bowler but seemingly limited on pitches outside the subcontinent, and no young batsmen thrusting from below with unanswerable claims to oust the established top five. That said, the contemporary tour itinerary gives little chance to batting reserves unless someone gets injured. In past Caribbean series, England players expected to get hurt: this time, despite two very fast and promising 22-year-old bowlers from Barbados, Tino Best and Fidel Edwards, the senior batsmen emerged with no more than a few bruises. Paul Collingwood, seen as Nasser Hussain's most likely successor, played only three first-class innings.
The coach, Duncan Fletcher, had fought for Hussain's inclusion despite his vain struggle for form in Sri Lanka. In the event, the series would not have been won by England had it not been for the bravery and professional know-how of the three thirty-somethings in the middle order: Hussain himself, Mark Butcher and Graham Thorpe. The first two held the fort in the pivotal first innings of the first two Tests, and again when West Indies looked like gaining consolation on the final afternoon in St John's. Butcher played particularly fluently throughout the series, having almost missed the opening Test after twisting his ankle in the first warm-up match. But the best innings was played by Thorpe in the Third Test, at Bridgetown, where he repeated his hundred of 1997-98 in tougher circumstances. It was a canny, skilful, gritty performance that won the match award.
That could have been won by no one but Harmison in the first two Tests, a fact for which Durham's pale-faced assassin deserved most credit himself. His great natural talent, barely evident in so gangling a figure, might never have been developed, however, had it not been for the faith and patience shown by the most recent England selectors and the shrewd promptings of the back-up staff, led by Fletcher and valuably augmented by the fitness adviser Nigel Stockill and the bowling coach Troy Cooley. Between them, they drove home what was at stake, convinced Harmison of the need for greater stamina, and worked on keeping his naturally high action rhythmic and simple. Training sessions at Newcastle United FC paid handsome dividends.
He may never again produce an analysis quite like the seven for 12 that won the Sabina Park Test with startling suddenness on the fourth morning. But the performances that followed, notably a crucial spell before lunch on the opening day at Port-of-Spain after Chris Gayle had batted superbly for the first 25 overs, proved Harmison to be 14-carat rather than a mere flash of brass. Few cricketers have been so misunderstood, especially by the media. As a bowler, although everyone recognised his unusual pace from his teenage performances in north-eastern cricket, he was seen as hopelessly inconsistent. As a character, having married young, he appeared gauche, and unhappy to leave home and family. It was marvellous to behold the emergence not only of the most awkward English fast bowler since Bob Willis but also of a man whose quintessential English modesty was underpinned by a competitiveness that was never meretricious.
Matthew Hoggard had much the same qualities: a willingness to work hard and two large feet planted firmly on the ground - in wellington boots, to judge by his walk. His hat-trick on the Saturday of the Barbados Test, in humid conditions ideal for his out-swingers, was the second example of how one spell can decide a Test match.
In between, in Trinidad, came a first five-wicket Test haul for Simon Jones, a performance in which all cricketers could rejoice. The charismatic young Welshman's long and lonely fight for fitness, after suffering a serious and appallingly unlucky knee injury in the field at Brisbane in November 2002, was admirable. He was a marginal choice in the Test attack in front of Lancashire's James Anderson, who could, however, be all the better for a spell on the sidelines, after his swift rise from league to Test cricket the previous year and the inevitable fallow period that followed.
The fourth member of the fast-bowling quartet, Andrew Flintoff, had his most commanding all-round series yet. Using his great strength unstintingly, he was at once hostile and controlled. His catching at second slip was magnificent and by the end, although there were still technical faults to be worked on, he had justified his promotion to No. 6 in the batting order. The series' most disappointing feature from an English viewpoint was the failure of the captain, Vaughan, and his opening partner, Marcus Trescothick, to give the team a stable start. They finally produced a partnership of substance in the second innings of the last match but, like Lara's record, saving the final game had to be seen in the context of a pitch that would have lasted for all of the 12 days that it had taken to decide the other three Tests.
At St John's, an all-Bajan West Indies attack bowled well together, especially the exuberant Best and the loose-armed Pedro Collins, to take advantage of opponents dazed and wearied by Lara's remorseless excellence. Flintoff 's resolute if fortunate third Test century in the first innings and Vaughan's 140 in the second were the most important contributions in denying them.
Vaughan averaged 35 in the end but this was only his second hundred in 13 Tests since taking over the captaincy, both made in the cause of saving a game. Not surprisingly, it took him time to learn how to give as much thought to his own batting as he had to all aspects of leadership. Vaughan had averaged 31 in his first 16 Tests, 72 in the next 15, and 29 as captain before this innings. The hope was that this century might mark the start of the fourth phase of a career surprisingly mercurial for so classical a player and equable a character.
Trescothick finished the series in the paradoxical situation of needing runs in the one-day internationals to underpin his Test place, yet needing to bat less like a one-day cricketer in the five-day game in order to score more heavily and consistently. His sharp reactions at first slip and an innings of 88 at St John's - after being reprieved by an unsighted umpire before he had scored - only partially atoned for another disappointing tour.
Much the same could be said of Lara's extraordinary innings in relation to the earlier performances of his team. Playing on a neighbouringstrip on the same square against the same opposition ten years to the monthafter the flawless 375 that first propelled him to stardom, he, too, might have been given out caught behind for nought (television replays were inconclusive about whether he had got a thin edge off Harmison). What followed, over the 13 hours in which he bent all bowlers to his will, was confirmation that, although he may seldom dominate like Viv Richards, Lara is the finest Caribbean strokemaker since Sobers. In this mood, too, his concentration and ability to eliminate risk bore comparison with Bradman, the only other batsman to have scored more than one Test triple-hundred.
Lara as leader was less of an open-and-shut case. He was polite and articulate with the media, supportive of his young team in selection meetings, and often very clever in his direction of them in the field - though after dislocating the little finger of his right hand in missing a slip catch in the First Test, he was unwilling to field close. Just occasionally, however, his tactics were unfathomable.
Still suffering pain from the finger, he dropped down the order in the second innings at Port-of-Spain. To some it looked like a retreat, which was nonsense, but it gave out negative pulses. More baffling was his reluctance to use Best and Edwards in tandem, particularly after lunch on the second day at Bridgetown when England, struggling at 73 for four, were allowed to settle down while Gayle bowled 11 overs in succession. Gayle is a steady enough off-spinner but Lara, not a Trinidadian for nothing, would have been happier throughout the series had he been given a specialist spin bowler.
The lack of one good enough to demand inclusion was only one of a multitude of problems troubling the latest group of West Indian cricket administrators. During the series they replaced one manager, Ricky Skerritt, with another, Tony Howard, but frequent changes of captains, coaches and executives have done little to arrest the decline since the 1990s. This said, one sensible change for the near future would be a foreign coach of sufficient stature, experience and clarity to rise above regional differences, establish priorities and plot a sensible course.
Like their English counterparts (less so Australians), West Indian administrators seemed too much concerned about making money and too little about making cricketers. Talk of lavish new stadiums for the 2007 World Cup was heard almost everywhere. Generally, there would be more sense in updating and enlarging existing venues like Sabina Park, the Bourda and the Antigua Recreation Ground than in sinking millions of dollars into new ones where pitches might not bed down in time.
The levy of £160 on Test tickets for English visitors was another case in point. It did not prevent an invasion of some 10,000 England supporters, a good many of whom bypassed the surcharge by getting their tickets in the Caribbean from local buyers paying the proper price. There was a time when West Indian fans would not have been so happy to make a profit at the expense of missing the match.
In letters' columns and phone-in programmes, the home team was accused of lethargic practice routines, poor leadership, a lack of pride and passion, too much pay and too little hard work. There may be some truth in all of these, but they are familiar barbs against defeated cricket teams. The essential problems for Lara's side - as for many years they were for England - were brittle batting, fallible catching and a lack of penetrating bowlers of sufficient experience and fitness.
The 3-0 result in the Tests did not reflect any great difference in natural ability between the sides, a fact emphasised when, with several changes in both squads, the one-day games that survived poor weather produced two wins each.
For England, the distinctions between 50-over and five-day cricket were highlighted by the efforts of their two most influential players, Trescothick and Chris Read. For West Indies, Dwayne Smith demonstrated again, especially by his effortless six-hitting, an exciting talent that needs to be both tutored and encouraged by regular selection. Ramnaresh Sarwan, who had enjoyed that necessary faith from the selectors, batted with intelligence and authority, notably in St Lucia and in making a virtually faultless hundred at Bridgetown. Read, having lost his wicket-keeping place to Geraint Jones for the final Test despite immaculate work behind the stumps for eight Tests in succession, proved he could perform with the bat too. He won a game in Georgetown, reduced by rain to 30 overs, by means of three timely boundaries in succession when West Indies seemed to have capitalised on Shivnarine Chanderpaul's shrewd hitting.
Both matches in Port-of-Spain and one in Grenada were abandoned because of rain, the latter two without a ball bowled, but the sun shone on true pitches and a perfect outfield in St Lucia. The consequences were two successful run-chases by West Indies, ecstasy for capacity crowds on the most modern ground in the Caribbean, and the restoration of some lost pride. Appropriately, however, it was England who had the final word when Trescothick's barnstorming strokeplay on another good pitch in Barbados ensured that the side batting second won every completed game.