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Preparation reaps rewards

Matthew Engel on what has changed from the days of the 1980s when England were a distant second to West Indies

David Gower: 'The West Indies are quaking in their boots' © Getty Images
Almost 20 years ago, after The Oval Test in 1985, the then-England captain David Gower stood on the balcony waving round a replica of The Ashes while champagne sprayed all around him.
England had just beaten what everyone knew was a very weak Australian team and were soon to head off to the Caribbean for a somewhat sterner set of Tests. "The West Indies," said Gower in that flip, ironic way that was and is his trademark, "are quaking in their boots."
Irony for those in public life is a very dangerous practice, especially in a job as exposed as the England captaincy. England were predictably blown away and went down 3-0 down in the series in three days here at Bridgetown - just as West Indies did this weekend.
That was the beginning of the end of Gower's captaincy. The initial response of Peter May, the chairman of selectors, appeared to be one of loyalty to his players, saying that the West Indies pace attack was so terrific, no one could be blamed.
However, three-day wins on holiday islands create a lot of spare time. Thousands of disgruntled England supporters spent the free days berating May to the effect that Something Must Be Done every time he was spotted in public. Gower was gone soon enough. And Bob Willis, the coach on that tour, made a rapid exit from the Lord's hierarchy.
This time the boot is on the other foot and Gower and Willis are now among the guesstimated 17 ex-England captains out here now in one capacity or another. The 8,000 England supporters on Barbados are not complaining in the slightest about being cheated of two days cricket.
This is an unprecedented triumph for England. No English team has ever won three Tests in a series in the Caribbean - only Len Hutton's team of 1953-54 got two, and that series was drawn. It has always been a tough, tough tour even when West Indies were white-led colonial upstarts.

The way it was: the crowd throw bottles onto the outfield after the controversial run-out of Clifford McWatt, West Indies v England, Guyana, 1953-54 © Cricinfo
So what has changed? England's strange form of home advantage must help. The endless Barmy Army chanting may irritate more refined spectators but it seems to make the players feel they are among friends. Hutton's team had to play in an era when West Indian crowds were famous for rioting whenever an umpiring decision went against their players.
It is hardly an arduous tour out here, anyway. There are not many comforts from home a cricketer is likely to miss unless he has a particular addiction to either real ale or frostbite.
But the cricketing change has come only since England's last visit six years ago. You can win Test series by having teams touched with genius, as West Indies did for so many years and to some extent Australia do now.
Failing that, the trick is to make sure that everything is done to ensure the players maximise what ability they do have. Man for man, West Indies and England appear to be well-matched. But when it has come to the crunch, England have prevailed.
This is similar to the pattern of England-Australia series over the past few years, in which England have sometimes dominated sessions and even days, but then folded. The difference is that England are inferior to Australia in terms of talent. England have outclassed West Indies in coaching, attitude and leadership.
Does that make England realistic contenders to win the Ashes back 20 years after Gower's little bit of irony? Even Michael Vaughan doesn't think so. "We'll have to play out our skins to win in 2005," he admits. He has his hopes set on the tour out there in 2006-07, by which time the current Australian team might have begun to fade away.
He did not say the Australians were quaking in their boots. Years of being misquoted or misinterpreted have stopped England captains making jokes like that. Vaughan does now have the right to hope for a little grudging Aussie respect, though.