Sparks will fly as West Indies and South Africa prepare for England

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Three years ago, after one match in charge of England’s cricket team, Andy Flower must have been wondering just what he’d got himself into.

Not many people would have suggested that 51 all out against the first of this summer’s visitors, the West Indies, would be the springboard for an ascent to number one in the world Test rankings, apart from those confined to one of those establishments in which nurses patrol the corridors armed with syringes, and the residents wander around imagining themselves to be Napoleon Bonaparte, or two poached eggs on toast.

And yet here we are, with England preparing to defend their position at the summit of Test cricket, and the second of their summer opposition, South Africa, attempting to take it away from them. How deeply unsatisfying then, that the clash between the number-one and number-two teams should be confined to a ludicrously short three-match series.

Don’t blame the Olympics either. After the end of the West Indies series on June 11, the following 38 days are taken up by eight one-day internationals and a Twenty20, and after the South Africa series, hip hip hooray! six more ODIs and three T20s. We’ll listen to commentators shouting: “it’s massive!” “It’s over the hot stand!” “It’ll come back covered in mustard!” If we’re still awake, that is.

The people responsible for this summer’s itinerary know the price of everything, and the value of nothing. There’s almost as much needle, and give-em-nowt dogfighting in a series against South Africa as there is in the Ashes, let alone for the world title. Not to mention that half of the England team cut their teeth on Biltong.

South Africa invariably raise their game when England are involved, and are still nursing grievances from the 1992 World Cup semi-final in Sydney, when they required 22 runs from the final 16 balls to win when it started raining. And when it stopped, thanks to a recalculation system even pottier than this summer’s itinerary, South Africa were pleased to learn that their target had been reduced from 22 runs to 21, but were slightly less happy to discover that the number of balls to get them had been reduced from 16 to one.

It was never spicier than in 1994, when Devon Malcolm was felled by a Fanie de Villiers bouncer, after which, once his ears had stopped ringing, he turned to the South African slip cordon and said: “You guys are history.” Malcolm was frightening to face at the best of times, not least because no-one knew where the ball was going. If Devon threw three darts in a pub, there’d be one in the bullseye, one in the tyre, and one in a gin and tonic, but that day he was both fast and accurate, blowing South Africa’s batting away with figures of nine for 57.

And in this series, the fast bowling confrontation could scarcely be more fascinating. England have arguably the best attack in international cricket, with the likes of Anderson, Broad, Finn, Tremlett, and Bresnan, but South Africa have a real cutting edge of their own, with Steyn, Morkel, and Vernon Philander.

You can feel the electricity now at the prospect of Steyn bowling to Pietersen, the pair of them going at it like two bare-knuckle prizefighters, with one man attempting to deliver the ball to the far side of the pavilion, and the other to land it somewhere in region of the helmet grille. And while Wisden doesn’t normally record such things, there could be a new Test match record for levels of testosterone.

There will be a good deal less hunting around for arm guards and chest protectors in the England dressing room during the first half of the summer, which, where the West Indies are concerned, is not at all how it used to be. In fact, when the batting coach, Graham Gooch, is addressing the troops before the first Test, the first thing he’ll be telling them is “you don’t know how lucky you are boys.”

When Gooch was facing the likes of Marshall, Holding, Roberts and Garner, survival was the primary instinct, not scoring runs. He recalls battling away for the first hour against the new ball, then looking up at the scoreboard while the drinks were being ferried out, and thinking: “bloody hell. I’m only nine not out.” And the only time he ever felt physically afraid, he said, was when he faced Patrick Patterson on a bouncy pitch in Jamaica.

It was on a similar pitch at the same venue that Mike Gatting was hit on the nose by a delivery from Marshall, the ball not only rebounding as far as mid on, but also with a piece of Gatting’s bone embedded in it. Which possibly qualifies as the first ever recorded instance of ball tampering.

This was an era in which the West Indies had so many lethally quick bowlers that perhaps the meanest of them all, Sylvester Clarke, only played in 11 Test matches. In his pomp with Surrey, Clarke would frighten batsmen to death, especially with the bouncer sent down with a suspiciously bent arm, and more than one opponent headed for the pavilion after having his nose singed by a Clarke delivery. “Come back” his batting partner would say. “You never hit it.” To which the reply would be: “it was close enough for me.”

This summer, though, England’s batsmen will find the West Indies attack comparatively tame next to South Africa’s. Fidel Edwards can be pretty quick, and Kemar Roach is brisk enough for the occasionally hurried stroke, but this time the West Indies’ main bowling threat could come from an off-spin bowler. Sunil Narine was bought for $700,000 at this years’ IPL Twenty20 auction, which was $650,000 above his reserve price, and his ability to bowl a wrong ‘un as well as the orthodox off spinner is what marks him out as someone who could have an impact on the series.

Not that England will be anything other than odds on – given good weather – to win this series without breaking sweat. The pitches in the early part of the summer are likely to give plenty of assistance to the likes of Anderson and Broad, and the West Indies’ brittle batting line-up is far too dependent on the experienced Shivnarine Chanderpaul.

Their team spirit is just as fragile, and on their last visit here in 2007, it was pretty well non-existent. Back in the West Indies, they have the curious method of commemorating their cricketing heroes by naming roundabouts after them, but five years ago, they were so inanimate you wouldn’t have named a bollard in their honour.

The emblem on the badge consists of a palm tree, a set of stumps, and a burning orb of sunshine, to which, in recent years, could easily have been added a banana daiquiri, a spliff, and a hammock. If there was any animation, it came when they were batting, wafting away outside off stump as though it was an audition for the conductor’s job with the London Philharmonic.

England are not an easy side to predict, as we witnessed during the winter, especially against Pakistan, when they got themselves into a winning position – often more than once – in all three Tests, but still lost the series. However, here goes. England 3 West Indies 0. England 1 South Africa 2.

This article was written by Martin Johnson for Close Up, the world’s best informed sports and betting magazine. Click here to get a FREE version of Close Up for your iPAD.

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