Desperate teams seek signs of better times
April 13-17, 2015
Start time 1000 local (1400 GMT)
It will take more than a few glorious Caribbean beaches to cheer up this series between two sides with a desperate need for signs of better times ahead. West Indies are ranked eighth in the world; England (actually as high as third) just feel as if they are after a misconceived World Cup challenge. England have appointed a headhunting firm to find a replacement for their sacked managing director of England cricket, Paul Downton; West Indies, too often, give the impression they would struggle to appoint the headhunter, never mind the candidate. Feelgood is not easy to find.
For England, there is the timing of the series. Even allowing for the effect of the World Cup, why on earth did the ECB agree to a series in April, so skilfully undermining the start of their own professional season? A question the departed chief executive David Collier is no longer around to answer.
For West Indies, fears run deeper: financial ruin. It would be intriguing to know how India's claim will play out for more than $40m as compensation for West Indies walking out of their tour last year - however justifiable it may have felt in bringing the matter to heel - if it sounds the death knell for West Indies cricket.
If England cannot overcome West Indies - even in the Caribbean - then their prospects in home Test series against the World Cup finalists, New Zealand and Australia, in this fast-approaching summer are not good. Trent Boult, Tim Southee, Mitchell Starc and Mitchell Johnson all lie in wait. But with neither the coach, Peter Moores, not the captain, Cook, impregnable, uncertainty will be dangerously close to the surface.
(Last five matches, most recent first)
West Indies LDLWW
In the spotlight
So James Anderson never cracked the World Cup. As he prepares to play his 100th Test, perhaps even now it rankles: a best of 2 for 30 against Scotland to show for what, all logic suggests, was his last World Cup, an average of barely one wicket per World Cup match (27 in 25 games) and that standard achieved only because of a flying start.
Add Anderson's impression that his standards have slipped as a consequence of his corridor spat last summer with India's Ravindra Jadeja, who took exception to his routine of waspish asides, and there is a sense of a fine, fit but ageing fast bowler feeling a little sorry for himself. No matter. When Anderson surpasses Ian Botham's record Test haul for England - barring injury, surely in this series, perhaps even in this first Test in Antigua - he will be viewed, in England at least, as worthy of his place in Test history. In England, his control of swing has at times reached magical levels.
Perhaps it does not do to make a habit of writing about coaches not players, but there is reason to make an exception. West Indies' appointment of a new coach in Phil Simmons, who made impressive use of limited resources with Ireland, has inspired new optimism among the Caribbean cognoscenti. There again he has only been in the job a week: everybody deserves a honeymoon period. Simmons' reputation for a strong team ethic and good planning comes at a timely juncture.
After their World Cup trauma, a legspinner is all England need. West Indies have called Devendra Bishoo into their squad. It might be that he has been encouraged back into the fold as a potential addition later in the series if things go badly - but England will still be a little unsettled by the notion that he might play. Bishoo has been in form, too, in West Indies first-class cricket.
West Indies (probable) 1 Devon Smith, 2 Kraigg Brathwaite, 3 Darren Bravo, 4 Marlon Samuels, 5 Shivnarine Chanderpaul, 6 Shai Hope, 7 Denesh Ramdin (capt/wk), 8 Jason Holder, 9 Jerome Taylor, 10 Kemar Roach/Devendra Bishoo, 11 Sulieman Benn.
The big question for England is whether Jonathan Trott will partner Alastair Cook as opening batsman or whether Adam Lyth, an outstanding batsman in county cricket last summer and a left-handed Yorkshireman of gathering maturity, will win a Test debut. There is a growing sense that Trott will win the vote. Have England identified a persuasive logic in discovering as much as possible about Trott's state of mind before the summer Ashes, bearing in mind his abrupt departure from the Australian whitewash tour because of a situational stress disorder? Or would a decision to turn to Trott - however fine his career record - be a classic example of English conservatism in favouring the tried and, in this case, not entirely trusted above the next generation?
England (probable): 1 Alastair Cook (capt), 2 Jonathan Trott, 3 Gary Ballance, 4 Ian Bell, 5 Joe Root, 6 Ben Stokes, 7 Jos Buttler (wkt) 8 Chris Jordan, 9 Stuart Broad, 10 James Tredwell, 11 James Anderson.
Pitch and conditions
Those who like to blame bad pitches for West Indies' decline will be watching closely. At least there is thought to be little chance of a repeat of the abandonment against England in 2009 because the run-ups were sub-standard, but the pitch is slow enough to drain the resolve of any budding West Indian quick hoping to follow in the footsteps of the Greats.
Stats and trivia
- West Indies have won only two home series out of their last 13 against a top-eight ranked side - one of those against England in 2009.
- Alastair Cook has not made a century in his last 32 Test innings. Since July 2013, he averages 29.96, with a highest of 95 against India in Southampton last year. In 30 Test innings before July 2013, Cook had six hundreds and averaged 54.92.
- Darren Bravo prefers batting outside the Caribbean. He averages 32.32 in his last 15 home Tests compared to 53.67 in 17 Tests overseas.
"It's a big Test series we want to win. I think my position should not really be a talking point as it has been over the last 15 months. I know it is, but I'm here for the most important thing - to help England win games of cricket. I feel I've still the energy to do that and the experience over the last three-and-a-half years to lead this young team forward."
Alastair Cook England's captain, still yearning for happier times.
"We are pushing ourselves a lot more now. A lot of youngsters are coming through. New faces that the English don't know about"
Denesh Ramdin, West Indies' captain, on the surprise factor in his team.
David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps