England out to banish ghosts of past failures


England stand on the brink of history, aiming to finally claim a tangible reward for the gradual improvements they have made since hitting rock bottom a year ago.

In the 12 months since approaching the corresponding Test, which they lost to New Zealand to lie at the foot of the unofficial Test rankings, the new regime under captain Nasser Hussain and coach Duncan Fletcher have little to show for the undeniable improvements they have made.

They lost last winter's Test series 3-1 to South Africa, have beaten Zimbabwe 1-0 earlier this summer and also claimed success in the Triangular One Day Tournament - all signs they are making progress.

Over the next five days, however, they could achieve something no England side has done in 31 years and beat the West Indies over a five-Test series.

Many members of the sell-out Oval crowd will remember Michael Holding's destruction of England on this very ground 14 years ago, Malcolm Marshall bowling West Indies to victory at Headingley with a broken arm in 1984 or the collapse to 46 all out in Trinidad six years ago inspired by Curtly Ambrose at his best.

Those memories and nightmares, though, will be pushed firmly into the background with Hussain and Fletcher demanding the players focus firmly on their opponents on the field rather than past contests.

"The last couple of series against West Indies we've drawn 2-2 so if that happens again, is that progress?" said Hussain. "It's all about winning and winning Test series against sides like the West Indies."

The key factor in England's gradual improvement has been the consistency of selection and the extra rest key players are now receiving with central contracts as many of them approach their final match of the season. Hussain, though, is conscious those foundations could fall away if England are not successful with the inevitable calls for change if they fail to reap rewards on the pitch on a more consistent basis.

"The whole set-up with England is a different mind-set now. In the past it felt like we were on the county treadmill and we just popped in and played for England, but now it is pretty much the same sort of faces," he said.

Standing in the way of their great achievement, though, are three huge obstacles in key batsman Brian Lara and fast bowling pair Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose, who could be making their last Test appearance together.

Ambrose has already announced his plans to retire and Walsh, Test cricket's leading wicket-taker with 476 victims, has refused to make an announcement about his future. Hussain admitted: "Ambrose and Walsh will be just as big a threat as they've been in all the other Test matches they have played. The West Indies have three great players in Ambrose, Walsh and Lara and they can turn a game around in a session.

"They have done it before against us and every Test side and we as a team of 11 players have to be aware of that, go about our jobs and do them particularly well and make sure we see off that threat."

If they do, they will regain the Wisden Trophy for the first time in 13 series and 31 years - one of the longest runs of failure for a prize between two international teams in any sport.

It would also be only the fourth time in the last 30 years that England have won a series going into the final Test ahead, the last time being when Mike Gatting's side lost the last Test in Australia but regained the Ashes.

England inspected the pitch and will delay a decision on their final line-up until tomorrow, but despite the inclusion of left-arm spinner Ashley Giles in the 12-man squad, may still name an unchanged team to exploit West Indies' weakness against the swinging ball.

England (from): N Hussain (Essex, capt), MA Atherton (Lancashire), ME Trescothick (Somerset), GP Thorpe (Surrey), AJ Stewart (Surrey, wkt), MP Vaughan (Yorkshire), GA Hick (Worcestershire), C White (Yorkshire), AF Giles (Warwickshire), DG Cork (Derbyshire), AR Caddick (Somerset), D Gough (Yorkshire).

West Indies (from): JC Adams (capt), SL Campbell, AFG Griffith, WW Hinds, BC Lara, RR Sarwan, CH Gayle, RD Jacobs (wkt), MV Nagamootoo, NAM McLean, FA Rose, CEL Ambrose, CA Walsh.

Umpires: DJ Harper (Aus) and DR Shepherd (Eng).

Third umpire: B Leadbeater (Eng).

Match referee: R Madugalle (Sri).