Thursday, May 17, 2012

England v West Indies: A Test Series Preview

Ah yes, it's that time of year again. Rummage around in the back of your wardrobe for those winter thermals that you put away during the heatwave in the final week of March, dust off your hand warmers and brush England's winter exploits to one side because England's international summer kicks off tomorrow. It's back to the green and pleasant land of seaming pitches and, presumably, empty seats because it's May. In England. And it's the West Indies.

The West Indies arrive and prepare to play in country which can't seem to decide which season it is, with the weather ranging from sunshine to hailstorms in the space of an afternoon. Around the county circuit, it's been a spring of discontent. My own county of Essex have been struggling since their first, and so far only, victory of the season in the first County Championship match of the season and other teams have also struggled to reach 200 on a regular basis. Days have regularly been washed out, with New Road being half submerged in water for a few days and a match at Gloucestershire being abandoned without a ball being bowled. It wouldn't be surprising if, like the Sri Lanka series last year, the three Test matches to be played are rain affected at some point.

Such is the beauty of the British weather. This isn't the MET Office and I long since gave up any dreams of being a meteorologist when I realised it'd help if I wasn't afraid of thunder storms, so I digress and move onto the cricket. Long ago, the West Indies coming over would've sent fear through the England batting order, and they wouldn't even need a spinner to do that. Today, anything less than an England whitewash would be seen as a disappointment.

To expect the West Indies to challenge in early English summer conditions is difficult, especially against a side who haven't lost a Test series at home since 2008, but they're not as bad as some make them out to be. Granted, they're not likely to be challenging for the number one ranking (although the top five is a target) and are liable to a collapse of England against Ajmal proportions, but they are, like many sides in international cricket have been, a side in transition. Ottis Gibson has been their coach for over two years now and captain Darren Sammy has been in charge of all three formats for around a year and a half.  They are a young side, with the average age of the squad for this series being around 26, but they do have some bright prospects coming through.

In the squad for this series, only five of those who came over in 2009 remain in the squad. One of those who remains is Shivnarine Chanderpaul, who in 2007 proved a stubborn thorn in England's side and, as recent showings against Australia suggest, he has the potential to do that again. For many years he, Ramnaresh Sarwan and Chris Gayle have been the major batsmen in the West Indian line up, but with Gayle's changeable relationship with the WICB and Sarwan's loss of his central contract meaning he now props up Leicestershire's middle order, Chanderpaul must act as a 'father figure' of batting to the youngsters coming through.

One of these batting youngsters is that of Darren Bravo. There's a mandatory reference to him being Brian Lara's cousin, left handed, etc. here, but Bravo is one of the West Indian players I'm excited about. This may be because I'm, somewhat unfairly, subconsciously comparing him to his half-brother Dwayne's performance at the Rose Bowl for Essex in 2010, but I'm hoping that Darren Bravo performs this series. He played a handful of matches for Nottinghamshire last season and his average was in the mid-30s, but in the warm up match against the Lions he got a half-century in each innings. He had a disappointing series against the Australians, but after 30 Test innings, his average is a relatively healthy 49.59. If he can perform in English conditions, then that would be wonderful for West Indian cricket, especially with the lynch-pin of Chanderpaul being 38 this year.

On the bowling front, England would do well not to completely underestimate them. Whilst the England Lions cruised home to a 10 wicket victory in Northampton, when Darren Bravo's coming on as first change, you know something's not quite right. Kemar Roach did not bowl in the second innings, and Fidel Edwards and Ravi Rampaul only bowled 10 overs between them. They bowled the combined total of 45 in the first. Should Edwards, Rampaul and Roach be fit and firing for the series, then England may well face some tricky spells. It won't exactly be the stuff of West Indian legends, but Kemar Roach, like Darren Bravo, is a West Indian youngster I'm excited to see in England.

Roach currently has 62 Test wickets under his belt and was the leading wicket taker for the West Indies against Australia, where he took 19 at 19.73. He can be expensive at times, but the 23 year old has pace and in the seamer friendly conditions of the early English summer, this may cause the English batsmen a bit of difficulty at times. 

Darren Sammy and Ottis Gibson aren't stupid though and are fairly realistic about the West Indies chances in the Tests. They know how strong England are at home and are also aware of how brittle their batting line up is. The ODI series is the one that the West Indies are more excited about, especially with the return of Chris Gayle. Sammy will be hoping that his young side will be inspired by the surroundings of Lord's and the potential to be on the honour's board, whilst Ottis Gibson has been left hoping that the match reaches four days.

When you look at the England bowling attack, though, it might take the weather to take the Lord's Test to a fourth day. England's bowlers have been superb over the past couple of years and this winter demonstrated that to full effect. They, especially James Anderson, toiled away in the searing heat of the Middle East and Sri Lanka and helped give England platforms that their batsmen failed to capitalise on. All the talk before this series is of who will be that third seamer. James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann (although how much he will be used is up for debate) are all shoe ins, but it's a choice of lucky charm Tim Bresnan, Steven Finn and Graham Onions for that final piece of the bowling jigsaw. 

I would expect England to select either Steven Finn or Tim Bresnan. Finn has come on leaps and bounds in the past year and would be playing at his home ground, but I would be tempted to go for Graham Onions. He picked up 7 wickets against the West Indies the last time they played at Lord's. In the County Championship match between Middlesex and Durham, he bowled Andrew Strauss for 0 and 6 on his way to picking up excellent match figures of 10-73. He is the fourth highest wicket taker in Division 1, with 23 at 14.52. Durham have had an awful start to the season, but Onions has stood firm and performed when required. I would love Onions to play, but that may be for sentimental reasons because I still remember the treatment of him in South Africa in 2010. Then of course there's Tim Bresnan. Bresnan had a superb series against India last summer and was a noticeable absentee in the disaster in UAE. He returned for his first Test match of the winter in England's victory in Colombo, where he wasn't really in on the wickets, but provided England with something different in the middle overs.

Of course, the bowling debate is something of a positive to have come out of England's dismal winter. The form of Andrew Strauss and Ian Bell's awful time of it are two things that have been much discussed in the run up to this series. Ian Bell had an incredible 2011 and it seemed like so much had been put behind him, but a miserable time of it at the hands of Ajmal and co was not exactly ideal for his confidence. He began the county season with three low scores, before hitting 120 out of Warwickshire's first innings total of 267 against Durham. He followed this up by then scoring 82 not out against Northants to guide Warwickshire home in a CB40 match. However, he decided to play for the England Lions and managed only 29 before being bowled by Roach. He didn't get a chance to bat in the second innings, but Bell, when he's on form, is a wonderful player to watch and I fully expect him to find 'form' again this series.

Andrew Strauss, on the other hand, remains centuryless. After the "witch hunt" of Sri Lanka, the cauldrons and broom sticks are probably on standby and packed in a cupboard in the Lord's media centre. Strauss has not had a happy start to the season, his highest score so far for Middlesex is a mere 49 against Worcestershire. His last first-class century came in a warm-up match against a Sri Lanka Development XI in March, but for his last Test century, you're heading back to the happier winter times of Brisbane in 2010. For his last one on home soil, you have to go back even further to the Lord's Test of 2009. With South Africa meaning far, far sterner bowling tests are coming, Strauss will know that he needs to find form, and will be trying his best to find some. 

A timely Ravi Bopara thigh injury has meant that he's now on the sidelines for at least two weeks, meaning that England have decided to hand the batting at number six baton to Yorkshire youngster, Jonny Bairstow. Bairstow is an incredibly exciting prospect and has shown himself to possess an incredibly cool head in limited overs cricket. On debut against India, he basted 41 off 21 deliveries and handed England a 3-0 series victory. If he can perform well in this series, the hapless Bopara may well have run out of England chances without having played a Test match for England since August 2011. Still, England have been lacking a northern ginger ever since Colly retired last year, so Bairstow is a welcome addition to the squad.

Anticipated result: England 2-0 West Indies (weather affected Test being a draw). If the weather's good, which it probably won't be judging by the first two months of the county season, then you would expect England to win 3-0. The West Indies have some talented youngsters coming through, but with the clouds gathering and England back on the green, seaming pitches of home, you get the feeling that the Calypso Collapso headlines may not be that far away.

The ducks will be back, probably, as I slowly try and not fail my second year. Anyway, here's to the English summer and being able to watch cricket in your own time zone again! 

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