If they should emulate the success of Colin Cowdrey's side in 1967-68, it would give hope that the improvement could be maintained against South Africa next summer and Australia next winter. If not, the painful prospect is one of further blood-letting at the top and insecurity in the English game at all levels.
The wheels now in motion for change throughout the game in Britain have been driven by the need to improve the strength and consistency of the national side, with all the beneficial spin-offs which would ensue for national morale, interest in the game and its financial well-being. The consequence of prolonged mediocrity has started to take effect. Texaco and Tetleys have dropped their sponsorship - Vodaphone were the only serious bidders to take over from the latter - and the television contracts will be negotiated in earnest as soon as the Government's advisory group have reported on listed events before Easter.
Mike Atherton and his players cannot but be aware of the awesome responsibility vested in their performances on this tour, but neither can they be oppressed by it. They have a great chance to show that progress is being made. Asked in the West Indies last week what would constitute a triumph, the chairman of selectors, David Graveney, replied ``a 1-0 win''.
It was a realistic answer, not just because the recent 3-0 defeat for the West Indies by Pakistan exaggerated their decline. One-nil was the slender margin by which Cowdrey's side won the series a generation ago.
England drew the series in 1973-74 but the West Indies have never contemplated home defeat by them since. Even in the absence of England's two most gifted fast bowlers, Dominic Cork and Darren Gough, however, it must be a possibility now. In what is sure to be a close series, team spirit will be crucial. The West Indies have problems after their thrashing in Pakistan and the captaincy issue may only be the tip of an iceberg.
On the other hand, that tour made things look worse than they are. Curtly Ambrose's apparent demise may turn out to be no more real than that widely predicted of Shane Warne after his operation. If in his last series against England, in 1995, Ambrose never looked likely to prise them apart in the way that he did in Trinidad four years ago (46 all out) he still took 21 wickets at 24 in his five Tests. Again, against Australia last winter Ambrose emerged with 19 wickets, including nine and seven in the two Tests which the West Indies won.
Whether or not Ambrose returns, the West Indies have two dangerous young fast bowlers in Mervyn Dillon and Franklyn Rose, a promising reserve in Reon King and, probably still at the helm, the incredibly tough Courtney Walsh. The proud and soulful Jamaican has been like a huge old oak among saplings during this transitional period in West Indian cricket. He is due to play his 100th Test in Barbados, needs 23 wickets in this series to pass Malcolm Marshall's West Indian record of 376, and has missed only one Test because of injury, last year, when Brian Lara took over the captaincy.
Whether he will do so throughout the series will be decided at a West Indies Board meeting on Tuesday. This is the nub of the West Indian conundrum. England's hope is to exploit it. Should Lara, whose Test average since he recaptured his brilliance in England in 1995 is a mere 36, fail to ignite, there is still a strong batting order for England's bowlers to get through Sherwin Campbell, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Carl Hooper and Jimmy Adams are all proven Test players. The equation is simple: if Lara broods and fails, England will win, however narrowly. If he ignites, they can hope for no more than a second successive drawn series.
In Atherton, Alec Stewart and Graham Thorpe, England have experienced players averaging more than 40 in Tests and with good records against the West Indies fast bowlers. Nasser Hussain, on his third senior trip to the Caribbean, has the talent and determination to succeed, provided he does not fall too often to balls leaving the bat.
John Crawley, Mark Ramprakash, Adam Hollioake and Mark Butcher are vying for the other two batting places and there are only two matches in Jamaica to sort out which of them will play in the first Test at Sabina Park at the end of this month. Jack Russell will start and probably finish the series as wicketkeeper but these first two matches must also determine bowling places, after nine days of acclimatisation at the new cricket centre in Antigua.
The loss of Gough before a ball has been bowled has forced bowling plans back to the drawing board, though Atherton said last night that if Gough could prove that he had made a full recovery from his hamstring injury he could still join the tour at some point. Along with Andrew Caddick, Dean Headley and Phil Tufnell, Gough might have formed an effective attack. Now Caddick becomes the spearhead and the contest for the role as third seamer at Sabina Park between Angus Fraser and the tyros, Ashley Cowan and Chris Silverwood, will be intriguing.
Even without Gough, England have almost an even chance, especially if everyone else stays fit. The West Indies retrieved some honour in Sharjah but their Cricket Board are financially strapped and in legal dispute with the former opening batsman, Desmond Haynes. Whatever is decided about the captaincy, there will be dissent, certainly so during the first Test in Jamaica, if Lara gets the job.
Clive Lloyd wants more power as manager and it is uncertain whether West Indian selectors Wes Hall, Mike Findlay, Joey Carew, Malcolm Marshall and whoever is captain will be retained. If so, they will continue to be subjected to what Hall recently called ``the spiteful insularity'' of Caribbean cricket. Local pride is at its fiercest against the old colonial masters, however, and the West Indian flair for cricket should not be underestimated.
ENGLAND PARTY: *M A Atherton (Lancs), M A Butcher (Surrey), A R Caddick (Somerset), A P Cowan (Essex), J P Crawley (Lancs), R D B Croft (Glamorgan), A R C Fraser (Middlesex), D W Headley (Kent), A J Hollioake (Surrey), N Hussain (Essex), M R Ramprakash (Middlesex), -R C Russell (Gloucs), C E W Silverwood (Yorks), -A J Stewart (Surrey), G P Thorpe (Surrey), P C R Tufnell (Middlesex).
ONE-DAY PARTY: Atherton, D R Brown (Warwicks), Croft, M A Ealham (Kent), M V Fleming (Kent), A F Giles (Warwicks), Headley, G A Hick (Worcs), A J Hollioake, B C Hollioake (Surrey), N V Knight, -A J Stewart, G P Thorpe.