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England on a roll

By Ted Corbett

England's Ian Bell (left) and Michael Vaughan await their turn at the nets as they prepare for the final Test against the West Indies. -- Tom Shaw/Getty Images

LONDON, AUG. 18. Andrew Strauss, an unsung left-handed Middlesex opening batsman when he received a late call-up after Michael Vaughan, the England captain, was injured at the nets just before the first Test against New Zealand at Lord's in May, walks out at the Oval for the fourth Test on Thursday as one of a tiny group of England players.

Strauss has played in six winning Tests in a row from his debut and, so far as the best researchers can tell, only Douglas Jardine, later captain of the England Bodyline team and the Surrey medium pace bowler George Lohmann have equalled that feat. (I say "as far as the best researchers can tell" because while it is possible to trace the records of Jardine and Lohmann there may be others who have won six in a row but missed Tests through injury).

Eldine Baptiste of West Indies played only in winning Tests — 10 in all; Brett Lee of Australia was on the winning side in his first 10.

Vaughan confident

It is just another way of underlining England's success in 2004. England has won three of four Tests in West Indies, three of three against New Zealand and the first three against West Indies here. It also won the last Test against South Africa in 2003 so a clean sweep over West Indies would mean eight home victories in a row. Only Peter May and Colin Cowdrey have equalled that feat.

"If we can win without Graham Thorpe, as we did at Manchester, we can win here too," says Vaughan. Thorpe made a century at Old Trafford before retiring to nurse his broken finger but England's impressive performance in the second innings — when it scored 231 for three and did not use the final 50 overs of the 101 that remained as its victory chase began — has won new admirers. It is the ideal time to introduce Ian Bell, a 22-year-old prodigy from Warwickshire whose inclusion means England fields only its sixth side with an average age under 27.

England would not have won at Old Trafford two or three years ago but now, full of confidence, urging one another on, tactically more aware and infinitely more determined, the Englishmen are too much of a handful for the rag-tag and hopeful cricketers under Brian Lara's command.

Unpredictable Lara

Ah, yes, Lara. He averages 28 in this series but we must not forget that only four months ago he became the first batsman to score a Test 400. He may have crept past 10,000 and he may have regularly fallen for sucker punches — Andrew Flintoff has had his wicket three times in the last four — but we may wake up on Saturday morning and find him 250 not out.

Actually, I hope we do. It is his last tour and he deserves to be remembered with respect and affection.

The teams (from):

England: Michael Vaughan (Capt.), Marcus Trescothick, Andrew Strauss, Robert Key, Ian Bell, Andrew Flintoff, Geraint Jones, Ashley Giles, Matthew Hoggard, Steve Harmison, James Anderson and Simon Jones.

West Indies: Brian Lara (Capt.), Chris Gayle, Sylvester Joseph, Ramnaresh Sarwan, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Dwayne Bravo, Carlton Baugh, Corey Collymore, David Mohammad, Pedro Collins, Jermaine Lawson and Fidel Edwards.

Umpires: Rudi Koertzen (SA) and Darrell Hair (Aus). TV umpire: Jeremy Lloyds. Match referee: Ranjan Madugalle (Sri Lanka).

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