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Feature

One series win in 50 years: How the Caribbean remains England's final frontier

Since England's victory in 1968, numerous generations have come a cropper in the West Indies

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
07-Mar-2022
England were beaten 2-1 on their last trip to the West Indies  •  Getty Images

England were beaten 2-1 on their last trip to the West Indies  •  Getty Images

England have toured the Caribbean on ten occasions in the past 50 years and, despite the recognition that West Indies' standards are not what they were at the height of their hegemony in the 1980s and early 1990s, have emerged with a solitary series win in that period. Here is ESPNcricinfo's overview of an unexpectedly one-sided rivalry
1973-74 - Series drawn 1-1
Two years before his crass "grovel" comments condemned his own team-mates to a summer-long diet of chin music, Tony Greig was front and centre of another lively campaign against West Indies - first with a moment of controversy, but ultimately with a touch of class.
After bowling England out for 131 in the first Test of the series in Port of Spain, West Indies were already well on course for victory when Greig, fielding at silly point for the final ball of the day, pinged down the stumps at the non-striker's end just as Alvin Kallicharran, hitherto unbeaten on 142, began to walk towards the pavilion. Kallicharran was rightly given out by the letter of the law, but just as correctly reinstated overnight, as the two teams reached a common-sense agreement to guard against the prospect of crowd trouble.
West Indies duly held onto their 1-0 series lead through the course of three high-scoring draws, with Dennis Amiss's 262 not out at Sabina Park giving way to Lawrence Rowe's 302 in Bridgetown. But when the series returned to Trinidad, Greig took his turn at the top of the bill. Using his full 6ft 7in frame to send down a spell of sharp-turning offbreaks, he derailed West Indies in both innings, first for career-best figures of 8 for 86, and then a further 5 for 70, as England defended a slender target of 226 to square the series.
1980-81 - West Indies won 2-0
Ian Botham would prove to be ill-suited to the role of England Test captain, but truth be told, the itinerary for his year in charge never gave him a chance. Nine of his 12 winless Tests came against West Indies in their pomp, but when compared to the beatings that his successors would endure in the coming decade, he actually did well to emerge with six draws to his record.
Botham's solitary tour as captain, in 1980-81, could hardly have encountered more arduous circumstances. The grainy footage of Michael Holding's legendary over to Geoff Boycott at Bridgetown endures as testimony to the on-field magnificence of Clive Lloyd's team, but off the field there was tragedy and controversy to surmount as well.
After a thumping defeat in the first Test in Trinidad, where Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes's opening partnership was almost as many as England would make in either innings, the tour descended into acrimony following the mid-tour call-up of Robin Jackman, the Surrey seamer whose strong South African ties were unacceptable to the Guyana government.
The second Test at Georgetown was duly cancelled, and though the third, in Barbados, went ahead as planned, the squad was plunged into shock with the mid-match death of Ken Barrington, England legend and hugely popular assistant manager. A grief-stricken Graham Gooch responded with an outstanding hundred, but not even his very best could avert another crushing loss.
1985-86 - West Indies won 5-0
Speaking on the Oval balcony after defeating Australia in the summer of 1985, David Gower declared - with tongue lodged firmly in cheek - that West Indies would be "quaking in their boots" at the prospect of facing his Ashes-winners in the new year. It wasn't a faux pas to match Greig's from a decade earlier, but if there was any quaking to be done, it certainly wasn't by Viv Richards' men.
A TV blackout meant that the full horror of that 1986 campaign was never publicly transmitted, but from Mike Gatting's graphically splatted nose (courtesy of a Malcolm Marshall bouncer in the ODIs) to the medal-like bruises on Phil Edmonds' torso after a savage beating in the first Test in Jamaica, the scars of the campaign were palpable.
Gooch conceded that Sabina Park Test was the only time he had been scared on the field of play, as the unheralded and terrifying Patrick Patterson ransacked seven wickets on debut. Joel Garner, Marshall and an ageing but still magnificent Holding ensured there would be no let-up at any stage of any session. By the fifth Test in Antigua, all resistance was futile. Enter Richards, in front of his home crowd, to put a personal seal on a triumphant maiden series as captain with a world-record 56-ball century.
1989-90 - West Indies won 2-1
There has surely never been a more shocking upset than England's victory in the first Test in Kingston. England had lost 14 of their previous 15 Tests against West Indies, and had just emerged from the most comprehensive home Ashes rout in history. A rebel tour of South Africa, allied to the binning of Botham and Gower, underlined the sense that expectations had reached rock-bottom.
But in Gooch, England at least had a leader with a proven ability to go toe-to-toe with West Indies' quicks and, at Sabina Park, his quiet authority was writ large across a truly stunning performance. Devon Malcolm put the "raw" into raw pace with a thrillingly full-throttle display, including the extraction of Richards twice in the match, while Angus Fraser toppled the tail with the earliest flourishing of his trademark line and length.
Allan Lamb then made it his business to ensure West Indies' collapse to 164 would not go unpunished. The fifth of his six Test centuries against the greatest pace attack in history was surely the best of his career, as he and Robin Smith secured a lead of precisely 200, and not even the loss of the fourth day to rain could prevent a famous win.
However, the fates had a series of cruel twists in store, as West Indies clawed back their hegemony by any means possible. Following a wash-out in Guyana, England could have been dormie-two after the third Test in Trinidad, as Malcolm's ten-for and a gutsy 84 from Gooch set up a tantalising target of 151. Ezra Moseley, however, would end the captain's campaign with a vividly broken hand, and as West Indies slowed their over rate to a crawl, England were ultimately forced to dig for the draw rather than gamble in fading light.
From that moment on, England's challenge resembled a Tour de France breakaway being reeled in by the peloton. Exhaustion began to overwhelm them in Bridgetown, where Curtly Ambrose's matchwinning 8 for 45 included five wickets in as many overs, after Jack Russell's defiance had been ended by an unplayable shooter. And then, in Antigua, the denouement was swift and brutal. Nevertheless, as West Indies celebrated the extension of their decade-long unbeaten record, they knew they'd been in a tussle for the ages.
1993-94 - West Indies won 3-1
For the first time in more than a decade, there was the faintest glimmer of optimism as England set off for their latest Caribbean venture. They'd been creamed in the Ashes once again, but at least under their youthful new skipper Mike Atherton, had won the sixth Test at The Oval, and while West Indies were never less than daunting, there had been a marked changing of the guard since their previous visit, with the retirement of three of their very greatest - Richards, Marshall and Jeff Dujon.
Unfortunately, two massive stumbling blocks still endured in Ambrose and Courtney Walsh, not to mention the coming of age of the Prince of Trinidad himself, Brian Lara. After England's typically bruising defeat in the first Test in Jamaica, Lara found his range in Guyana with a matchwinning 167, before Ambrose responded to the fleeting threat of an England fightback in Trinidad with the most evocative rout of his career. Chasing an apparently obtainable 194 for a 2-1 series toehold, Ambrose tore in on the penultimate evening with six prime wickets in 7.5 overs, including Atherton to his first ball and a shell-shocked Graham Thorpe to his last. England closed on 40 for 8, eventually succumbing for 46 the next morning.
Astonishingly, England bounced back with a remarkable win in Barbados - West Indies' first defeat at the ground since 1935 - courtesy of Alec Stewart's twin hundreds and Fraser's then-career-best 8 for 75. But inevitably the last word would belong to Lara, who cashed in on a docile deck in Antigua to demolish Garry Sobers' 36-year-old Test batting record. Resuming on 320 not out with the Caribbean expectant, Lara nervelessly raised the bar by ten runs to 375.
1997-98 - West Indies won 3-1
Another tour in which England believed they had a chance, another emphatic slamming of the door as West Indies overcame that creeping sense of atrophy within their set-up to win the series at a canter, and make Atherton in particular regret staying on as captain for one last tilt at an endlessly elusive prize.
The first Test at Sabina Park was enough to make England's batters question their life choices. It lasted just 10.1 overs before being called off due to a dangerously corrugated pitch - England lost three wickets in that time, including Mark Butcher to his first ball of the tour, a unplayable lifter that fizzed off his splice to gully - whereupon the schedule was hastily rejigged to accommodate a replacement Test in Trinidad.
These back-to-back fixtures in Port-of-Spain were a pair of classics. West Indies won the first by three wickets, with Carl Hooper marshalling his lower-order to overcome an 11-wicket match haul from Fraser; a week later, England squared the series by the same margin, Fraser and Stewart again the heroes, as with their Barbados win four years earlier.
Thereafter, however, England's fortunes went south. They came a cropper at an unusually arid Guyana and though Mark Ramprakash's long-awaited maiden Test century gave them the upper hand in the drawn fifth Test in Barbados, rain on the final day ended their series hopes, and drained what remained of their resolve.
The denouement in Antigua was a horror show. The contest was as good as over when England were rumbled for 127 in their first innings, whereupon Clayton Lambert and Philo Wallace - a pair of pinch-hitters with a disdain for line-and-length bowling - clobbered West Indies towards a first-innings lead of 373.
Even then, the contest could have been saved as Nasser Hussain and Thorpe dug in for the draw. But on 106, Hussain was calamitously run out to re-open the floodgates. England's final seven wickets duly tumbled for 26 runs, with Thorpe's unbeaten 84 a teasing reminder of the unusually fine margins by which the campaign had been decided.
2003-04 - England won 3-0
It had taken the best part of four decades, but England finally toppled West Indies on home soil, and they did so - fittingly enough - with a four-pronged pace attack that has arguably never been bettered in their history.
The seeds of England's 2005 Ashes triumph were sown in the Caribbean that month, as Steve Harmison, Andrew Flintoff, Simon Jones and Matthew Hoggard gelled with devastating effect for three misleadingly comprehensive wins - none more astonishing than the first Test in Kingston, where three days of punch and counterpunch gave way to one massive haymaker.
As the fourth morning got underway, England's lead was a slender 8. By lunch, they had won by ten wickets, after Harmison's extraordinary haul of 7 for 12 routed West Indies for 47, their lowest total in Test history. His gangly splice-snagging methods struck again a week later in Trinidad, where his first-innings figures of 6 for 61 were joined in the second by Jones' maiden Test five-for.
One match later, Flintoff added his first five in the opening exchanges at Bridgetown, before Hoggard - not to be outdone - bagged a second-innings hat-trick to send Windies tumbling to 94 all out.
The suddenness of these victory surges meant that the efforts of England's batters went under-recognised. None of Hussain, Butcher or Thorpe would still be in the side come the 2005 Ashes, with England preferring fresh and fearless minds for that seismic tussle. Here, however, hard-bitten wisdom - in Hussain's case, of four Caribbean tours - was exactly what the challenge demanded, as they withstood the eager threat of, especially, Fidel Edwards and Tino Best with a series of doughty displays, not least Thorpe's exceptional Bridgetown hundred, where the next-best score was 17.
Inevitably, however, that man Lara was lurking to swipe the batting plaudits in the final act of the series. A mere handful of months after losing his world record to Matthew Hayden, and ten years to the week after toppling Sobers' mark at the ARG, Lara cashed in at the same venue, to surge to Test cricket's first and only quadruple century. The majesty of his display merely served to underline how brilliantly England's quicks had kept him quiet at the sharp end of the series.
2008-09 - West Indies won 1-0
If the circumstances of this latest campaign seem shambolic, then spare a thought for the class of 2009. The toxic fallout from Kevin Pietersen's spat with Peter Moores had had no time to dissipate as the team jetted off for the Caribbean with a new captain, Andrew Strauss, and a reluctant stand-in coach, Andy Flower, who had yet to be convinced that he wanted his predecessor's job full-time.
But then came perhaps the most important defeat in England's recent Test history. A pitiful collapse to 51 all out in Jamaica gave the new management an excuse to flex their muscles and demand better, or else. As if to reinforce his message, Strauss led from the front with three hefty first-innings centuries in the remaining three Tests (excluding the ten-ball farce in a sandpit in Antigua), to establish the authority with which he would lead England to Ashes victory that summer, and ultimately to the No. 1 Test ranking.
However, England were unable to force victory in any of those games - West Indies clung on for dear life at the ARG and Port-of-Spain, while Ramnaresh Sarwan's 291 was the dominant factor in the final Test at Bridgetown. The final throes of the campaign epitomised England's missed opportunity, as a strokeless Denesh Ramdin and Edwards held firm at 114 for 8 in Trinidad, to win back the Wisden Trophy … albeit for barely two months.
2014-15 - Series drawn 1-1
Hot on the heels of an atrocious World Cup campaign, England's Test squad set off for a tour of the Caribbean that could hardly have been less auspiciously timed. The build-up was overshadowed by the unguarded utterings of the ECB's new chairman, Colin Graves, whose declaration that West Indies were "mediocre" was precisely the team-talk that an already motivated opposition didn't need.
Ian Bell's 22nd (and final) Test century gave England the upper hand in Antigua, only for Jason Holder's maiden hundred to guide West Indies to a gleefully acclaimed draw - one that, in the process, stole back the thunder from James Anderson after he first equalled, then overtook, Botham's long-held record as England's leading wicket-taker.
The second Test in Grenada went more according to England's designated script, thanks largely to Joe Root, whose 184 was his fourth massive unbeaten hundred in the space of nine Tests - and in spite of the best efforts of Marlon Samuels, whose first-innings century was followed by an infamous navy-style salute as Ben Stokes left the crease - the ramping-up of a rivalry that would peak at the World T20 final the following year.
But England's inherent frailties could not be hidden for long, and the edifice came tumbling down in a dismal series-squaring defeat in Barbados. At least Alastair Cook found some timely form with his first Test century in almost two years, but of his team-mates only Moeen Ali (58) passed fifty in either innings. The most notable failure was the sadly out-of-sorts Jonathan Trott, whose scores of 0 and 9 confirmed there'd be no fairytale finish to his Test career, 18 months after his breakdown on the 2013-14 Ashes.
2018-19 - West Indies won 2-1
This time, England arrived in the West Indies thinking they'd cracked it. With their white-ball revolution in full swing, the squad had embraced a radical new approach to Test cricket, packing their middle- and lower-order with a glut of counterattacking allrounders to mitigate the long-term frailty of the top three. The approach paid rich dividends with a 4-1 home series win over India and an impressive 3-0 scoreline in Sri Lanka, but come the Caribbean, they got too clever by half.
In Barbados, England dropped Stuart Broad in favour of Sam Curran, and were taught a two-part lesson in hubris - first when Kemar Roach showed the enduring value of backing your experienced quicks in the Caribbean by claiming 5 for 17 as England were routed for 77, and then when Holder rampaged through West Indies' second innings with a stunning double-century - seizing on the threadbare nature of a line-up in which Curran's medium-pace had been fatefully exposed. When Roston Chase twirled through the second innings with 8 for 60, their humiliation was complete.
England's fortunes would get worse before a marked improvement in St Lucia. In Antigua their batting flatlined once more with scores of 187 and 132, courtesy of Roach's four wickets in each innings and heavy artillery back-up from Shannon Gabriel, Alzarri Joseph and Holder, all of whom put in performances worthy of their legendary forebears. And so it was that England's penny finally dropped in Gros Islet, where Mark Wood was unleashed for one of the most ferocious fast-bowling displays in England's history. It was enough for a consolation win, but it couldn't deflect from the muddled thinking that had preceded it.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket