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Russell can make it an England carnival

Christopher Martin-Jenkins

5 February 1998

TWO things, the pitch and Brian Lara, will probably decide the outcome of the second Test of the Cable and Wireless series, starting at the Queen's Park Oval this morning, writes Christopher Martin-Jenkins.

Nothing has changed since the first game was abandoned after 10 overs and one ball. That monstrous freak can be ignored now, if never quite forgotten or forgiven; this pitch is flat and grassy, but if it starts as dry as it was yesterday, it is not a foregone conclusion that the captain who wins the toss will choose to bowl first.

Lara, remembering past matches here, indicated that he would probably do so if Mike Atherton should call wrongly, but unless it rains - which is not forecast - or it is over-watered by the new groundsman, under whose care the ground has never looked better, it should be no more than an awkward but slow seamer.

El Nino has ensured drier air than is normal here and there is nothing like the amount of moisture there was in 1990, when the West Indies would have been bowled out for little more than a hundred but for a buccaneering innings by Gus Logie, or three years ago, when Australia were whistled out for 128.

The brave thing to do this morning - assuming, I repeat, no sudden excess of dampness - would be to bat. The chances are that the actual choice will be to field. In the West Indies' case this might be partly because, if in doubt, it is the option they normally take, and partly because Lara himself made two low scores here against the Leeward Islands in the last match on the square.

In England's case it might be because Phil Tufnell might well get some purchase off the grass, quite apart from the fact that Andrew Caddick, Dean Headley and, in particular Angus Fraser, will all like the look of the greenness.

The West Indies batted first by choice here on a much less grassy surface, but scored only 296 and were comfortably passed by India in a game which never looked likely to end in anything other than a draw. Since then the combination of Bryan Davis as ground manager and Curtis Roberts as groundsman has smartened things up considerably.

Trinidad generally has a more prosperous air about it at present, and it is no one's fault here that the need to put on an extra match has required the new electronic scoreboard to be temporarily transformed into the old manual one (at a cost of 7,500) or that the newest stand, opposite the comfortable old pavilion, is not ready.

Seventy per cent of the tickets for next week's Test have been sold in advance. The attendance at this one will be limited by the clash with pre-carnival activities and the limitations on people's time and pockets. Nonetheless, the attraction of Lara captaining the West Indies for the first time in his homeland will no doubt be considerable. Having bypassed any possibility of failure before a hostile Jamaican crowd, he now has the advantage of playing the first of two successive Tests before his own adoring public.

Here he is the prince of Port of Spain, with a chauffeur-driven open-topped Mercedes for transport and a hilltop home, overlooking the savannah, that is so lavish that the president of Trinidad is apparently planning to use it as his temporary residence while his own is being refurbished.

Ladbrokes make Lara their favourite to score the highest number of runs in the series - between 390-410 - and still offer 3-1 against England winning the Wisden Trophy. Another spread betting firm, Sporting Index, still think Graham Thorpe, third in the world ratings, will make no more than 335 in the five Tests.

Here, perhaps, is evidence of the credibility gap between England's aspirations and the fact that they have not won a Test in Trinidad since 1974, when I was one of the fortunate and slightly amazed witnesses to Tony Greig's match-winning 13 for 156 as great players like Sobers, Kanhai and Lloyd succumbed to confident spin bowling.

If England, organised and determined as they are, finally cross the Rubicon in this game it will be surprising if Tufnell, bowling exceptionally well at present and truly in control at last of his temperament, does not have something to do with it.

Carl Hooper is not to be underestimated, but Tufnell is the only specialist spinner on either side. It remains to be seen if the third Test pitch alongside this one will give him more help in due course because of marks made by bowlers following through.

On the only other occasion when there were back-to-back Tests at Port of Spain, India scored over 400 in the fourth innings of the second game to win. History of a very different kind from last week at Sabina.

The West Indies are expected to replace Ian Bishop with Kenny Benjamin, who enjoyed himself here against Trinidad less than two weeks ago and whose skiddy pace and variations off the seam may well cause trouble on what is sure to be a slow pitch.

England have not officially said so, but they will play the 11 they originally chose for Sabina before Jack Russell, like Lara winning his 50th cap today, withdrew because of illness.

John Emburey reports that Mark Ramprakash has been batting like a master in the nets. He is certainly the unluckiest omission in view of his part in England's win at the Oval in August.

But the decision had to be made between himself and John Crawley and, though the common view refutes it, it was the right one. There is a place for both in England's future, perhaps soon. For all the England team, recent victories in Sharjah and the Under-19 World Cup make this a propitious time for the first XI to rise to the challenge.

West Indies (from): *B C Lara (Trinidad), S C Williams (Leeward Islands), S L Campbell (Barbados), S Chanderpaul (Guyana), C L Hooper (Guyana), J C Adams (Jamaica), -D Williams (Trinidad, wkt), C E L Ambrose (Leeward Islands), C A Walsh (Jamaica), K C G Benjamin (Leeward Islands), N A M McLean (Windward Islands), F A Rose (Jamaica), I R Bishop (Trinidad).

England (probable): *M A Atherton (Lancs), A J Stewart (Surrey), J P Crawley (Lancs), N Hussain (Essex), G P Thorpe (Surrey), A J Hollioake (Surrey), -R C Russell (Gloucs), A R Caddick (Somerset), D W Headley (Kent), A R C Fraser (Middlesex), P C R Tufnell (Middlesex).

Umpires: S Bucknor (Jamaica) & S Venkataraghavan (India).

Scheduled Play: 2.05-9.05pm GMT.

Source: The Electronic Telegraph
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Date-stamped : 25 Feb1998 - 19:33