“The denouement came like a bolt from the clear blue Kingston skies. For three days this was a gritty arm-wrestle of a match; then, on the fourth morning, West Indies collapsed for 47, their lowest ever total. Steve Harmison, bowling with cold-eyed purpose, finally came of age.”
So wrote Wisden of England’s 10-wicket victory at Sabina Park five years ago. The details are different – afternoon for morning, 51 for 47, third lowest for lowest and Jerome Taylor for Steve Harmison – yet the circumstances remain eerily similar, a result as spectacular as it was unexpected.
That 2004 series was the one that launched England towards Ashes success the following summer. All good sides need a spearhead, Harmison’s seven wickets at Kingston gave them one. The progress of this batch of West Indian quicks has been tangible but gentle in recent years – yet if they can harness the psychological boost of demolishing England, then they are young enough (Taylor is 24, Fidel Edwards 27 and Daren Powell 30), talented enough and quick enough to carry their islands’ cricket out of the ditch of the last decade.
It is vital for West Indies that these bowlers continue to progress, for the batting remains just as likely to collapse as England’s brittle top-order. Get Chris Gayle and Ramnaresh Sarwan early and Shiv Chanderpaul cuts a lonely figure. Had the Windies had their second-dig first in Kingston we could just as easily be cheering another misleading England carve-up.
Yet the performances of England’s top-six are beginning to reflect what we suspected – they are not good enough. In this case Sabina Park may prove a blessing – nothing shakes selectors like an innings defeat – yet there is little in reserve to inspire hope in the way that Adrian Barath has cheered West Indies followers.
England can make all the top-order changes they like but in the immediate term their fortunes in the West Indies rests on their ability to remember how to strike the knockout blow. This is as much to do with attitude as talent – Mike Atherton has written powerfully of the deeper malaise he believes to be surrounding a jaded England set-up lacking authoritative leadership.
The performance of the England bowlers in Kingston did not lack heart – but it missed the exuberance of Taylor and co. West Indies are now the team at the start of a journey, while too many England players just want to go home.
Sam Collins is website editor of thewisdencricketer.com