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Atherton regroups to face turning point in fifth Test

Christopher Martin-Jenkins

12 March 1998

IT IS the time of trial again for England. As so often in the Atherton era, they have to win a Test match, or at least not lose it, to keep a series alive. The fifth Test starting in Bridgetown this morning will decide not just the series, led 2-1 by the West Indies, but also whether the man who has captained England in more Tests than anyone, 50 so far, can extend his leadership for another year or must relinquish it before the South Africans arrive in May.

The personal issue matters much less than the team one, but the two are inextricably linked. It seems almost inconceivable that England can win here without a significant batting contribution from their leader, given the excellence of Curtly Ambrose's bowling so far: 23 wickets at 9.78. It is a curious fact, however, that Mike Atherton's top score was only 47 in the matches in which they came back from defeat to win in their last series against the West Indies at home in 1995.

Atherton and Graeme Hick were the only England players to score a hundred in that six-match series, on a featherbed at Trent Bridge. This pitch will be bouncier in the first 20 overs or so when the ball is new and the chances are that the match will be decided by whichever set of fast bowlers takes early wickets. It can only be to England's advantage, therefore, that the West Indies have deliberately dropped both their opening batsmen for the first time since 1935.

Clayton Lambert has scored hundreds in his last two games at Kensington Oval and Philo Wallace's last five innings have been 129, 87, 79 not out, 68 and 31 not out. But this is a Test match.

The edges will have to be caught. On balance, England's slip fielders have been the more reliable and at its best, the Fraser-Headley-Caddick combination is capable of bowling just as effectively as the faster one of Ambrose, Walsh, Bishop and McLean, who is expected to take over again from Dinanath Ramnarine. Given the incompetence of England's tailenders against a good leg-spinner, demonstrated once more against Barbados this week, that could work to England's advantage, although as Atherton recognised yesterday, Carl Hooper is ``an experienced bowler now, a genuine fifth bowler and you can't afford to underestimate him''.

In recent Tests played by the West Indies on true pitches, Ambrose and Courtney Walsh have been relatively innocuous. Against India at home last year, in the series which led to the relaid squares at Sabina Park and Antigua, Ambrose took 10 wickets in five games and Walsh only four in five matches at 62 each.

Walsh has summoned up his deep inner reserves since and now needs only 10 wickets to become the highest West Indian wicket-taker of them all. Moreover, five of Ambrose's 10 against India were in the decisive match in Bridgetown, where he has so often proved a match-winner on a pitch keeping low late in the game.

This one looks, if anything, even flatter than the surface on which England and Barbados lost only 17 wickets between them in three days, and it has less actual grass, as opposed to rolled-in grass cuttings. That is one reason why England were still agonising about their final XI last night: whether to make a late decision to ask Alec Stewart to keep wicket after all, enabling both spinners to play; and whether, if they stick with Jack Russell as, on balance, they should and will, to prefer Phil Tufnell to Robert Croft.

That would be manifestly unfair to Croft, who has batted well and bowled somewhere near his best in the last fortnight, quite apart from out-bowling his partner in Georgetown. The fact, however, that Mark Ramprakash bowls increasingly servicable off-breaks (who is to say that he might not, in time, become a mini-Hooper?) and the memory of the priceless control Tufnell's mean, over-the-wicket stuff gave Atherton in the latter stages of the epic contest here four years ago may mean that before the toss this morning it will be Croft who makes way for the returning Andrew Caddick.

The toss is interesting in itself. In the 11 Tests at Kensington since England were beaten by an innings in 1986, 10 captains have elected to put the opposition in (the exception was Richie Richardson three years ago when Australia went on to follow up England's success the previous year) but six times the result was a total of more than 300 for the side given the advantage of batting first and only three times have the fielding side bowled their opponents out for less than 200. Unless 'Prof' Edwards is unusually liberal with the hosepipe this morning, the winning captain will assuredly bat first, but, unlike at Bourda, this pitch should last.

Seven, and, if Tufnell plays, eight, England players remain from the XI who gained the heady 208-run victory in 1994. The chief among them, Stewart, confronted with a 'Purpose of Visit' question on his immigration form on the plane from Georgetown last week, ignored the proferred Business, Sport or Holiday and wrote instead: ``To win a Test match.''

If he makes two hundreds again this time, no doubt England will oblige. A pitch as good as this, however, is every bit as likely to be the platform for Brian Lara's first hundred - or double hundred? - of the series, as it is for a Stewart reprise or Atherton's first fifty for 15 Test innings. The batsmen most in need of runs for England, apart from the captain, are Russell and Graham Thorpe. Both are cricketers of character and a hundred from Thorpe is overdue.

Early indications of the relaid pitch in Antigua are that it will be a slow and comfortable one. With tired bowlers playing their second match in quick succession that may mean a draw, so this is the decisive encounter. More than 8,000 England supporters are here to see it, from the Lords Cowdrey and MacLaurin, through many a former Test cricketer down to humble Sid, Bert and Harry.

Like Horatio Nelson, they all expect England's men to do their duty, but West Indians have their expectations, too. Fortunately, the match will be locally televised after all, which should cool the anger of those Bajans who have not been able to get tickets.

ENGLAND (from): *M A Atherton, A J Stewart, M A Butcher, N Hussain, G P Thorpe, M R Ramprakash, -R C Russell, R D B Croft, A R Caddick, D W Headley, A R C Fraser, P C R Tufnell.

WEST INDIES (from): P A Wallace, C B Lambert, *B C Lara, S Chanderpaul, C L Hooper, R I C Holder, -D Williams, C E L Ambrose, N A M McLean, C A Walsh, I R Bishop, D Ramnarine, J C Adams.

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Date-stamped : 12 Mar1998 - 14:42