H HERE’S an apt question.
Which was the last team to win a Test series over England ? The memory might have been clouded by subsequent events but it was the West Indies in 2009, a hard earned 1-0 outcome that regained the Wisden Trophy after nine years.
And now for the corollary. Why are England , then fifth on the ICC’s Test ratings, now within one match of rising to No.1 while the West Indies are stuck at No.7, the same as they were two years ago and several years before that?
The explanation is obvious, if complex.
One indisputable factor is the disparity between the riches available to England for development at all levels (principally through broadcast rights, sponsorship and gate receipts) and the comparative paucity of the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB).
Yet money is not the only, not even the primary, reason. More significant is the stability that has underpinned England ’s rise as opposed to the perpetual, self-inflicted chaos keeping the West Indies where they have been for so long.
England’s consistency that has carried them towards the pinnacle they have not reached since the 1950s is revealed in the composition of the eleven blown away for 51 by Jerome Taylor at Sabina Park two years ago and those who humiliated India , the present No.1, in the second Test at Trent Bridge last week.
Eight of those devastated in the debacle of Kingston (Andrew Strauss, Alastair Cook, Ian Bell, Kevin Pietersen, Matt Prior and Stuart Broad of the playing eleven, James Anderson and Graeme Swann temporarily in the reserves) were among the jubilant victors in Nottingham.
On the other side, only two of the triumphant West Indians (the evergreen Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Fidel Edwards) were still around for the recent final Test against India . For a variety of disruptive causes, the four who figured most prominently in the Sabina sensation (Chris Gayle and Ramnaresh Sarwan with hundreds, Taylor and Sulieman Benn with eight wickets each) were missing.
That Caribbean tour was the first for Strauss as captain and Andy Flower as coach. It was a tough assignment. They had been hastily and contentiously thrown in at the deep end after the dismissals of Pietersen and Peter Moores whose stints as skipper and coach lasted no longer than a tailender’s innings.
Strauss and Flower have retained their posts ever since, an understated, but unmistakably effective, combination with respect for each other and from their players.
For the West Indies , John Dyson, the Australian, was removed half-way through his contract as coach in favour of Ottis Gibson and Gayle, captain for three years, was replaced last October by Darren Sammy after he declined to sign an offered retainer contract.
Through media conferences, radio interviews and public statements, mutual revulsion, rather than respect, typified relationships between the senior players and the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB), chief executive Ernest Hilaire and the coach.
It inevitably led to Gayle’s exclusion from the team, a decision based more on what the WICB regards as his unsettling presence (the “gang culture” was the phrase used by one WICB director ) than his cricket. He was, after all, the one established opener for a decade, with two triple hundreds and an average of 41.65 in 91 Tests.
Significantly, four separate pairs opened in his absence in the five Tests against Pakistan and India .
No such upheavals undermined England .
Strauss’ load was lightened when Cook was made skipper for ODIs and Broad for T20s but, except for two matches in Bangladesh when he was given time off, Strauss has led and opened with Cook in every Test since Kingston.
While the West Indies have moved on from the volatile Benn to the promising leg-spinner Davendra Bishoo, England have relied for spin on one man since 2009 as Swann has moved rapidly up to No.4 on the ICC bowlers’ table.
So it is with the wicket-keeper. The West Indies ’ position appeared Denesh Ramdin’s for as long as he produced. Instead, he went backwards and Carlton Baugh was restored.
His keeping against Pakistan and India was slick but he averaged only 20 with the bat. It continues to be another problematic area.
Not so for England . Matt Prior, who seemed to be using boxing gloves two years ago, can now lay valid claims as the best wicket-keeper/batsman around.
As Dwayne Bravo’s cricket mysteriously deteriorated, not necessarily the fault of too much T20 cricket as is generally claimed, the West Indies found the all-rounder’s cupboard as bare as Old Mother Hubbard’s.
At his best in his 40 Tests, Bravo allowed a balanced selection of five batsmen, a batting all-rounder, a keeper and four main bowlers. England get that from Prior and increasingly from Stuart Broad; there is no one comparable for the West Indies , a deficiency that places pressure on captain Sammy.
One of the five tall fast bowlers available, Broad is evolving into a new Andrew Flintoff. Swann and Tim Bresnan are not too far behind in that area.
It is ironic that England ’s rise and the West Indies ’ further demise had the same starting point.
It was the two Tests hurriedly agreed to by the WICB, for the sake of a couple of million dollars, in wintry May in England immediately following the victorius 2009 home series.
The players, not least captain Gayle who was involved and enamoured by the new Indian Premier League (IPL), clearly did not want to be there, certainly not so soon after their Caribbean conquest and not at the tailend of winter.
The West Indies were duly walloped and England began to cultivate the collective self-confidence that regained them the Ashes against Australia later that summer.
Just how strong they now are was shown in their 3-1 Ashes triumph in Australia over the new year, each victory by an innings, and in their current humbling of India .
While England continued to get tougher and better, the West Indies self-destructed. Within six months of taking back the Wisden Trophy, their leading players, and several up-and-comers, went on strike for the home series against Bangladesh .
When they returned, with all the benefits they struck for, their relationship with the WICB was even more fractious. Defeat followed defeat.
They failed to make the semi-finals of the 2010 World T20 in front of their home crowds and it wasn’t until last April against Pakistan , under the new captain and without the old, that they broke a winless streak of 17 Tests.
Now Sammy’s stated aim is for the West Indies to rise to the ICC’s top five by 2015. It is a big call that can only be achieved if they replace the disunity of a decade and more with the stability that has carried England to where they stand. Ends.