Ganeshbabu Venkat | 11:08pm gmt 02 May 2009
The Wisden Trophy
There is absolutely no merit or logic in having a reciprocal series between two teams before two years let alone two months, and certainly not when all eyes are trained on the IPL and their gyrating cheerleaders. But there is the small matter of the Wisden Trophy, which the West Indian team is still savoring after its Test-series win over England, regaining the prized possession after a gap of nine years. But that could very well be short-lived. The West Indians will start their defense of that prize on May 6 at Lord's, just three months after that sensational afternoon in Sabina Park when Jerome Taylor ripped through the feeble England batting line-up and determined the series outcome.
It was a great victory for the West Indies, who had been subjected to much disappointment and humiliation over the past decade, but the win did not mask their flaws. They came perilously close to losing the Test matches in Antigua and Trinidad, and held on only by the skin of their teeth on both occasions. It was the new-found team spirit under Chris Gayle, evidently absent from the West Indian teams of the past that held them together through the five-match series. On the other hand, England did not play like a team that was one-nil behind; the timing of the declarations in Antigua and Trinidad left much to be desired, as another thirty minutes in each Test could have handed England the series two-one. But England needs to put that aside and take heart from the fact that the West Indies have not won a single Test Match in England for nine years.
The early part of the English summer can be cold, chilly and frustrating for any touring team, and teams can find it extremely difficult to adapt. The West Indies will be no exception; added to that, their past results are not encouraging: since Jimmy Adams's men humiliated England at Birmingham by an innings and 93 runs during the 2000 series, they have lost every single Test Match played in England, barring two rain-affected draws in 2000 and 2007, the lowest ebb being the four-nil whitewash during the 2004 tour under the great Brian Lara. During their last tour in 2007, they started off well, drawing the first Test at Lord's only to lose the next three by huge margins.
With just two Test matches in this series, the West Indies will have to hit the ground running, and they could easily be caught off-guard and find themselves one down before they arrive at Riverside for the Second Test. The England seam attack would be itching to bowl on the seamer-friendly wickets at home after their hard grind with the unresponsive pitches of the Caribbean. James Anderson and Stuart Broad will lead the English attack, but, with Andrew Flintoff recovering from his "degenerative" knee surgery and a conspicuous lack of support bowlers, England could yet find its Achilles heel in trying to force a result. The onus is on England to be on the offensive, since the West Indies will be content with drawing the series and retaining the trophy. England has placed its faith in two greenhorns, Tim Bresnan and Graham Onions, and replaced the unimpressive duo of Ryan Sidebottom, a shadow of his former self in the Caribbean, and a directionless Steve. England will be relying on its inexperienced pacemen and the off-spinner Graeme Swann to produce the goods.
For once, the West Indies bowling looks much better than the opposition: for the first time since the retirement of Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose, it has two fast bowlers in Fidel Edwards and Jerome Taylor who could be a handful in English conditions. As a matter of fact, the West Indies have not done so badly away from home since their tour of South Africa in late 2007. The highly-rated Jamaican paceman Andrew Richardson, with his height and pace, could cause problems for the England batsmen. These three and the gigantic Suleiman Benn could indeed turn out to be a match winning-attack and turn the tables on England. The West Indies have blown hot and cold in the two warm-up games so far against Leicestershire and Essex; The loss to the England Lions in their last warm up game has badly exposed the West Indies but has definitely helped them further to acclimatize to the cold and chilly English conditions, and also should help them make a final decision on their playing eleven before the First Test.
Although the bowling on either side could ultimately decide the series, the batting needs to provide support. The West Indies, as usual, will be dependent on the "Big Three", Chris Gayle, Ramnaresh Sarwan and Shiv Chanderpaul, the last of whom averages 77.5 in England and could once again prove a thorn in the flesh of the England team. He has been virtually unmovable over the past two years, and England will be hoping that the law of averages works against him, but there is no sign of that just yet: he is like an energizer bunny, and he continues to go on and on. Gayle and Sarwan have shown some maturity of late, and, if their rich vein of form continues, the West Indies could challenge England by racking up huge totals. Lendl Simmons, with his form in the tour games, injects some confidence into the fragile batting. However, with a heavily-inexperienced batting line up and the strange omission of Dwayne Bravo from the Test squad, the West Indies will be hoping for bigger and better things from the Big Three, failing which they could find themselves facing an uphill battle. This could be the first real test for the obdurate Brendan Nash, who was one of the finds of the last series between these two sides. It will be very interesting to see how he bats on bowler-friendly wickets.
The England batting was very strong in the Caribbean, and there is no reason to suppose that it cannot repeat that run-scoring fest in conditions with which their batsmen are familiar. Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook are in great touch, but the number three for England is still unsettled after Ian Bell and Owais Shah failed to impress during the Caribbean tour. With England dropping Ian Bell and opting not to welcome the prodigal son Michael Vaughan back into the fold, Ravi Bopara has the opportunity to tackle the crucial number three position. It was indeed a big surprise that Vaughan was not considered in a bid to settle that key number-three position before the Ashes. Many thought his experience and reputation to come back when pushed into a corner would have made him the favorite but England seems to have opted for form over reputation.
Kevin Pietersen will want to let his bat do the talking after all the shenanigans during the later part of the Caribbean tour. With the consistent Paul Collingwood and the dependable Matt Prior filling up the number five and six slots England's batting could give the West Indians a run for their money. Although the same could not be said of Prior's keeping, he almost set a world record for the number of byes in the Trinidad Test. With the dearth of batsman-wicketkeepers in England, Prior is almost certain to take the gloves for the entire series and even the Ashes that follows. It seems England is in for another summer searching for a keeper who can actually hold some catches.
The unfamiliarity of the English conditions, the distracting dispute between the WIPA and WICB suggests the tourists could find the going tough. With that it would be fair to say it's advantage England, but the West Indies are so unpredictable we have seen stranger things from them, none better than the recent rout of England for 51 when no one gave them a chance. If indeed the West Indies once again show some much-needed pride and fight we could still have an intriguing Test series on our hands. If that happens, it could very well beat the IPL for theatre and drama and could turn out to be as interesting as the one we witnessed not so long ago in the Caribbean.