England in West Indies: Final Ashes questions need answers

LONDON (BBC): We have been talking about 2019 for so long, a year in which England have a home World Cup followed by an Ashes series. It might be the biggest year in England’s cricketing history and they will hope that it turns out to be their most successful.

It begins here in Barbados, with the first of three Tests against West Indies. As I look out over the famous old Kensington Oval, I can see some of England’s key protagonists and cannot help but wonder how the next 12 months will play out for them.

Will Trevor Bayliss, in his final year as coach, ride off into the sunset having completed a remarkable double?

Can Stuart Broad, for so long an England shoo-in, have a successful tour of the Caribbean and nail down that Ashes place?

Will James Anderson keep going after the visit of Australia? He looks so fit, there seems no reason why he can’t.

For captain Joe Root, who really stamped his authority on this team during the 3-0 win in Sri Lanka before Christmas, will this summer provide some redemption after that horrible tour down under last winter?

At the moment, England’s main focus is on winning in the Caribbean. Even though West Indies have been so inconsistent for a number of years, England still have a pretty poor record here.

In their past two tours, they have won only one Test. The last trip, a 1-1 series draw, marked the end for both batsman Jonathan Trott and, eventually, coach Peter Moores.

Realistically, this trio of Tests is the last chance for some of this team to prove their worth in the longest form before the Ashes begins.

England’s only other Test before they meet Australia at Edgbaston is a four-day match against Ireland at Lord’s. By that point, they will want their Ashes team sorted.

The most pressing issues involve the top three. Rory Burns must show he can kick on and make big scores; Keaton Jennings needs to prove he is as good against seam as he is against spin; and Jonny Bairstow must demonstrate he has the technique – and discipline – to handle his promotion up the order.

The rest of the batting order seems pretty settled and the decision England have before Wednesday is on the make-up of their bowling attack.

Unusually, there are two pitches, side by side, prepared and ready to go. The Caribbean, and especially Barbados, is suited to tall fast bowlers who can exploit any uneven bounce that may come in late in the game, so Broad – who took a hat-trick in the opening warm-up game – should play.

With that being the case, England probably have to decide between the all-round talents of Sam Curran, who will be useful with the Dukes ball, or the second spin option of Jack Leach.

Root’s men will face a West Indies side that remain a shadow of the great team that dominated the rest of the world in the 1980s and early 90s.

Their captain Jason Holder is an impressive figure and their bowling will have some pace about it, but they are inexperienced – not one player has more than 50 caps.

Shai Hope, the architect of their incredible win at Headingley in 2017, has not kicked on, but he will at least have some batting support in the shape of the recalled Darren Bravo.

Indeed, the change in fortunes of the West Indies team mirrors the very different attitude to the game that I have found since arriving in Barbados.

On previous trips here, you could not have a conversation with a local without talking cricket. The immigration officer at the airport, the cab driver, the man in the bar – there was only one topic when England were in town.

That is not the case any more, although I am told that with life on the island getting busier, locals simply turn their attention to cricket much later than they used to. The hope is that the Kensington Oval will be blessed with plenty of home support come Wednesday.

We already know England fans will be packed in. The number being quoted is somewhere in the region of 9,000 and you cannot move in Barbados for red faces and sunburnt legs.

A trip to the West Indies is a great occasion for any cricket fan, even if those who have arrived will find a much-changed Kensington Oval to the one where Michael Holding bowled that ferocious over to Geoffrey Boycott in 1981.

Back then, noise bellowed from the rickety old stands ,the band played, spectators danced and men in loud suits shouted at the players. Now, Barbados is home to a very modern stadium, even if there remains an opening through which you can see the palm trees swaying.

Either way, England’s travelling fans will still be greeted by a swimming pool and rum punch.