By the time you read this (I hope I don't flatter myself) the series against the West Indians will be underway, yet it only seems yesterday that England were 'celebrating' their victory against Zimbabwe. You do have to marvel at times at the capacity of the 'Poms' to talk themselves up when a little bit of the old Irish penchant for snatching the role of the underdog might be more appropriate. I suppose that it had much to do with an untypical tip-top display at Headquarters, but England's showing at Trent Bridge must have left their management in a state of some bewilderment. Being bowled out twice in an attenuated game was bad enough, but the cheek of the visitors in declaring so far behind, and the degree to which they then caused England to have to scramble on the last day, can have done not a lot for morale.
Herein, perhaps, lies the key. You have to admire what the Zimbabweans achieved. Setting to one side their problems at home, which by all accounts are not confined to the political arena, they got out on the park and were determined to show what they were capable of. Perhaps their younger bowlers were just too afraid of facing the full ire of Thommo (!) but both Nkala and Mbangwa did well, to add to the more predictable excellence of Streak. Whittall also turned in a sound all round effort, not least in getting their innings underway after the rapid loss of the unfortunate Grant Flower. Schofield's half-century was a ray of hope for England (although, on a note of caution, did Ian Salisbury not announce himself in a similar way?) but when it came to the bowling Brian Murphy looked a far superior article.
The tour de force, however was Murray Goodwin's innings. It was full of the old fashioned virtues, with his back cuts, leave alones, and crisp punched off drives living on in the memory. Neil Johnson (right, an Irish 'cap' only 2 years back!) gave excellent support so that, when Sunday's play was drawing to a close, most of us thought that Zimbabwe would set their sights on achieving a first innings lead and let the rest of the game look after itself. But none of that, and did they not reap the benefit of a bit of positive thinking, that will surely have enhanced their confidence when the one-dayers come along early in July? Lessons here for Irish cricket which, as I stated in an earlier article, must have much to learn from Zimbabwe with its similar player numbers. That most of their top players still emerge from a competitive and traditional school system should not escape the notice of our own administrators, who must be keen to improve the overall direction of our game.
What then of the men from the Caribbean? England beware; they are facing a side with an abysmal recent away record, having failed to record even a draw in South Africa and New Zealand. Their early form has been mediocre, though they do arrive on the back of a fine series win over Pakistan, wherein under the gutsy leadership of Jimmy Adams new reserves of doggedness seem to be developing. They still have two of their great fast bowlers on the go in Walsh and Ambrose who will give the English batsmen a more physically demanding time than the Zimbabweans. They will hardly test their skill level any further, however.
England's selection appears to be attended with logic. The current West Indies batting line up has more left-handers than even the most famous of Downpatrick or Clontarf teams of yore, and the inclusion of the off-spinner Croft seems a natural move. Perhaps even Graeme Hick's neglected talents in this department will be employed. However I fear that if this theory is based on Croft's performance at Sophia Gardens for Glamorgan in the recent tour game, and more specifically his two-time dismissal of Brian Lara, it may well be flawed. Lara fell (literally almost) to a strange leg-side stumping in the first innings, and an lbw decision in the second that raised more than the odd eye brow, the ball having raised an even larger amount of dust as it appeared to grip and turn away from its stump-bound path. Time will tell, but whatever unfolds isn't it always a great feeling as a new series gets underway and we must just hope that it will be favoured with good weather, even handed umpiring, and no suspicion of any 'off course' activities!