Tuesday 23 July 2019

England ready to navigate big dangers of West Indies

England captain Joe Root during net practice at Kensington Oval in Bridgetown, Barbados. Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
England captain Joe Root during net practice at Kensington Oval in Bridgetown, Barbados. Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Jonathan Liew

In Barbados, danger often lurks behind most idyllic of facades. Take a bite from the juicy green fruit of the manchineel tree, and the deadly toxins will quickly leave you with excruciating pain and internal bleeding. Take a swim in the crystal-blue ocean in summer, and the jellyfish will be waiting. Take a midnight stroll on the beach, and you may not necessarily return home with all the possessions you left with.

England's cricketers are, by and large, far too sensible to get tangled up in those sorts of shenanigans.

But a different danger lurks over the coming weeks as Joe Root's side attempt the perfect start to what they hope will be English cricket's perfect year.

From the high plains of January, the road ahead is mapped out with a chilling clarity: a home World Cup, a home Ashes, a double swing at immortality.

Come unstuck at the first hurdle, however, and suddenly their golden plans for 2019 will take on a wildly different hue.

There are three Tests to be played, and England are good enough to win them all - as they did so impressively in Sri Lanka last autumn.

For that to happen, however, they will need to display the sort of clinical consistency that has so often eluded them in the recent past. They don't need to play perfect cricket. They will be excused the odd loose session or mini-collapse.

Not for nothing are the West Indies on the verge of slipping to No 9 in the world behind Bangladesh. But when the game begins to turn against them, Root's men will need to find a way.

The past year suggests they are beginning to learn how to do so.

Flexible batting orders, enviable strength in depth and good bowling variety offer Root plenty of options, whether he wants to chase a game or strangle it.

And after a torrid 2017-'18 winter, the captain himself has shown signs of growth and empowerment: intelligently rotating bowlers, giving individuals clear roles in the side, taking tough decisions like leaving out Stuart Broad or taking the gloves from Jonny Bairstow.

Traits

Above all, after 24 Tests in the job distinct character traits are beginning to emerge: a preference for youth over pedigree, for individual expression over collective rigidity, for aggression over caution, for shaking things up rather than letting them settle.

Alastair Cook told an interesting story recently relating to the second Test at Headingley last June.

England had just bowled Pakistan out cheaply before tea on day one and, with their top order struggling for runs, and a first win in nine Tests within their grasp, Cook argued that England should bat time, consolidate their position, feel their way back into form.

No, Root told him firmly. That wasn't how he wanted his England to play. He wanted them to counter-punch.

England scored 106 in the final session, won in three days and have won seven Tests in eight ever since.

The low, slow pitches of the Caribbean, however, will provide a subtly different challenge.

And the home challenge should not be underestimated, even if you disregard England's shocking record of one series win here in 50 years.

The West Indies frequently give the impression of a team threatening to implode under the weight of its own internal politics - well, you try running a team comprising 17 different nations.

But few assignments motivate them more than an England series and, while that alone won't be enough in a three-Test series, even in their lean years there have been enough moments of stunning audacity to warn England against expecting things all their own way.

The Kensington Oval is completely sold out for the first day of the series. For both teams - and the 9,000 English fans who have travelled - today could be the start of something special on one of cricket's most evocative fixtures. (© Independent News Service).

Irish Independent

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