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Agony of those tense last hours

By Michael Atherton

22 February 1998

WITH 12 runs to win, three wickets in the shed and at a moment of highest tension at the Queen's Park Oval, Alec Stewart announced that he had had a dream. ``Four runs to win with Phil Tufnell walking to the crease.'' ``Well, Stewie, how did it end? Did he do it or not?'' The Gaffer shrugged: ``I dunno, mate, I woke up.'' A rare moment of humour from the players' balcony during the tensest hours of cricket I have ever watched.

I had given 'throw-downs' to 'the Cat' before the start of play on the last day of the third Test on Tuesday and, to be fair, he had looked in pretty good nick. His record on tour so far, however, had done little to inspire confidence. He was not sure whether he should be moving back and across his crease, or back to leg stump, and his first-innings dismissal - lbw to Curtly Ambrose, with his left leg hovering in mid-air - only served to confuse him further. Although Alec is in the best form of his life at the moment, thankfully his clairvoyant skill did not match up, and 'the Cat' was not called upon.

Instead, he spent the final hour of the match fully padded up, sitting on the toilet, puffing away, anxiously watching the television monitor. He was accompanied downstairs in the shower area by a chain-smoking John Crawley and Graham Thorpe. I, Nasser Hussain and Alec watched every ball, from the balcony, listening to David Lloyd's nervous grunts and John Emburey's jocular attempts at tension-relief (much as he had in Christchurch 12 months before).

Dean Headley watched from the balcony, and slept during lunch, while Angus Fraser looked pale but announced to those not listening that 'his whupper' would be fine if required. Unless you are playing in the match, or have experienced it before, it is impossible to describe the agony of those watching - mentally playing every ball but physically unable to exert any influence on the outcome.

The tension seemed never-ending: a delayed start, further drizzle and rain, no bad balls, a badly-timed lunch break that took the game into the penultimate session when most had predicted a four-day finish. And then the Headley batting genes, absent for so long, brought an on-drive for three - surely the great George, Dean's grandfather, would have smiled.

A no-ball, a bye and it was all over and Mark 'Selwyn' Butcher, the pub singer who had popped in for a Test match, had led the team to glory, showing astonishing temperament and playing only one false shot.

I assume Sky viewers saw some dressing-room scenes. Before the celebrations began, however, there was much relieved hugging all round. 'The Cat' was shaking with emotion and Headley, who had played so calmly to register his first Test win in England colours, virtually broke down. The victory meant so much, especially after the last match was snatched from our grasp. Realistically, we knew there was no recovery from 2-0 down and the psychological wounds would have run deep. It would have been a severe blow to the strides we think we are making.

I feel that we got our preparations for this match just about right. The previous game, only three days earlier, was exceptionally draining in temperatures exceeding 100F. We felt that two days' rest and one day's practice was the right combination. Equally, however, we realised we needed to be honest with ourselves and admit to our failings; then, quickly get that match out of our system and build up the team for the game ahead. We entered it, therefore, in a positive frame of mind, determined as always to try to play good cricket, get into a winning position and this time nail it.

Whereas I felt we had bowled poorly in the first Trinidad Test, it was the key to our victory in the second. Fraser's three wickets on the first afternoon, when the West Indies threatened briefly to get away, kept us in the match, and Andrew Caddick followed up with a five-wicket haul and on the third morning, trailing by 85 at the start of play, we had to throw all our eggs in one basket as we knew anything beyond 200 would be difficult.

Headley, although he only had one wicket to show for it, bowled magnificently for two hours in hot temperatures. In both matches we have seen the vulnerability of the West Indies batting, and provided we remain disciplined in our bowling and take our catches this can only give us renewed hope for the rest of the series.

Fraser, of course, has been magnificent in both matches. It must be particularly gratifying for a man ignored for the last two years. The nature of the Queen's Park Oval pitch and the big-seamed Duke ball have worked in his favour - but that is in no way to diminish his outstanding returns so far. The spread betting firm Sporting Index, who offered Fraser at 9-11 wickets for the series, must be hoping that he has another hip injury. I have played in England teams that have come back well before against the West Indies, most notably at Bridgetown in '94 and Manchester in '95. Given the short time between these two Tests, however, and the galling nature of our first defeat, this was an even more remarkable renaissance.

It spoke volumes for the character of the team and I cannot praise them highly enough. Either team could have emerged from these magnificent Tests 2-0 up: 1-1 seems somehow about right. And how good it is to see these two evenly matched teams socialising so freely after such fierce contests. Most importantly, the series is alive, especially so for the thousands of English supporters due to come out. There has been much drama so far - and I am sure there is more to come.

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Date-stamped : 22 Feb1998 - 18:19