London: It is a measure of how much things have changed since the West Indies' glory days that the overwhelming feeling amongst home cricket fans ahead of their tour of England is sympathy.
From the mid 1970s through the 1980s the West Indies dominated world cricket with as fearsome a battery of fast
bowlers as the game has known and dynamic, hard-hitting batsmen. They seemed to reserve their most pulverising
displays for England, the old colonial power.
Yet the English crowds, while they feared for the safety of their own batsmen and the figures of their bowlers, had no
trouble relishing the exuberant skill of the West Indies. Fast forward a generation, and this seems scarcely credible: the West Indies arrive in England having won just two out of their last 30 Tests.
For what was once a world-beating side to be reduced to a three-Test series, mostly in May, ahead of world number one
England's showpiece encounter with South Africa is undeniably sad. Whether it is a lack of planning, inconsistent selection and questionable administration, many of the West Indies' wounds are self-inflicted. But certain developments in world cricket have been unkind to their cause.
For example the cash-rich Indian Premier League Twenty20 tournament cuts across the West Indies' domestic season. And that offers players a financial lifeline if, they are in dispute with the West Indies Cricket Board. And that of course
is just what happened with the hard-hitting opener, former captain Chris Gayle.
That may be good for Gayle -- and indeed any other players who have fallen out with a WICB, whose "general incompetence" was criticised recently by former Wisden editor Scyld Berry. But the West Indies have missed Gayle's runs during an international exile of more than a year.
It does appear though that he will be available, after completing his IPL duties, for the one-day matches against England that follow the Tests. Against this backdrop the tourists, recently beaten 2-0 in a home Test series by Australia, have arrived in cold, wet England, where the seam-bowler friendly conditions could suit the likes of West Indies quick Kemar Roach.
"I am quite confident our guys can put the English batsmen under pressure," said West Indies captain Darren Sammy
ahead of the tour opener against Sussex at Hove, which starts on Saturday.
But do the West Indies have the batsmen to counter the conditions in which they expect their bowlers to thrive? Certainly, in the experienced left-hander Shivnarine Chanderpaul, now officially ranked the world's best batsman, they have a cricketer for whom the adjective 'gritty' was invented. Here is a man so experienced in salvage missions it is little wonder he hasn't been asked to raise the Titanic.
Chanderpaul however is a middle-order batsman and even he can only do so much if those above him fall cheaply. To his credit Sammy, whose team showed glimpses of their potential against Australia, didn't duck the issue.
"Stats don't lie and it is fair to say our top order has looked vulnerable," he said. "It did not click against Australia, but the selectors still have shown faith in Adrian Barath and Kieran Powell.
"They are quite young, they are still learning on the job." Sammy has won plaudits for his leadership skills but doubts remain over whether he is worth his place in the side.
After 24 Tests, the 28-year-old has just two fifties to his name and he averages nearly 31 with the ball.
"I have developed a formula for myself in which I could play and I worked out that once I play my way, the aggressive
way, I get more results," said Sammy.
"As a team, the culture and the environment is very good, and the players are starting to shape up as a family."
For all those for whom the West Indies will always be their 'second favourite' side, they will hope Sammy is right
about his own game and that of his team.