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England have inched into pole position

Christopher Martin-Jenkins

19 February 1998

THE poet Siegfried Sassoon entitled his best known verses about cricket The Extra Inch. The game has often depended on tiny margins - a catch not quite carrying; an lbw appeal for a ball pitched a fraction outside leg stump; a ball swinging within a hair's breadth of the edge of the bat - but it is hard to recall 10 days of cricket where so many extra inches made all the difference between defeat and victory as those at Port of Spain during which the West Indies won the second Test by three wickets only to concede the third by the same margin on Tuesday.

England's deservedly jubilant team left Trinidad last night for Guyana on the South American mainland aware that they might by now be two up in the series if the extra inches had fallen their way in the first game or Dean Headley had found his rhythm a week earlier. Yet they were immensely relieved to have had the rub of the green in the equally exciting third Test.

There is no doubt that, for once, they did so. They played and missed often in the fourth innings, from Atherton and Stewart on Sunday evening to Butcher and Headley on Tuesday afternoon. Has any side ever taken longer to score 225 to win a game? Yet the local reporter who spoke of customary English caution was wrong. England played as positively as they were allowed to by the wonderfully accurate and still very fast bowling of Walsh and Ambrose.

The two giants, with almost 700 wickets between them, were like a pair of golden eagles harrying an injured ram. Had England not run so well between the wickets, resulting in a few close escapes but only one run out, they might have taken until sunset on the last day to get the runs. The great thing is that they made it eventually and now there is still everything in the series to play for.

Apart from the character and resolution of England's batting, and the sheer excellence of Angus Fraser's bowling, the tiny difference between the sides lay in superior running and fielding and in the slightly uneven distribution of the luck. The West Indies dropped two catches; several edges just failed to carry; and many an umpire in the past might have granted one or two of the lbw shouts which Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh made with increasing fervour as England crept, mainly in ones and twos, to the 225 they needed.

Darrel Hair, no stranger to controversy, seemed to get everything right and by making only one obvious error Edward Nicholls, although he faced more appeals in five days than Sir Paul Getty probably receives in a year, made an impressive start after only one previous, rain-affected, Test. Steve Bucknor is much respected but this man promises on this evidence to be the best West Indian umpire since Douglas Sang Hue.

Fraser reacted to being man of the match more prosaically than Sassoon, but with customary realism: ``Little things are going my way at the moment. They probably won't later in the trip so I'll make the most of it while it lasts.''

We shall soon discover what sort of pitch Fraser will have to bowl upon at Bourda in Georgetown. The three-day match starting against Guyana at the Everest Club, also in Georgetown, on Saturday will help to sort out which of the other bowlers will share the attack with Fraser, Headley and Tufnell in the fourth Test starting a week tomorrow. Ashley Cowan and Chris Silverwood have the opportunity - in Silverwood's case after seven weeks without a game - to show that they might be more reliable than the enigmatic and often rather infuriating Andrew Caddick.

Mark Ramprakash, Robert Croft and Adam Hollioake - whose back complaint in Port of Spain was, he believes, a knock-on from the dislocated shoulder joint he suffered in Jamaica - will all hope that they, too, might force themselves into contention for a Test place. If so, John Crawley, although he has been saddled with the unwanted No 3 position, is vulnerable. Like Caddick, and in a quite different way, he is an enigma.

As an undergraduate, he looked such a natural that Majid Khan, managing the Pakistan Under-19s, recommended Crawley's immediate elevation to the Test team. Now, after 25 Tests, he seems a more inhibited player than he did then. Nasser Hussain, who is batting impressively despite his bad luck in the third Test, should have been taking the responsibility of batting at three in this series, but the advice to Crawley now should be: ``play yourself in, but play naturally.''

England's selectors should have no preconceived notions about the make-up of the fourth Test team until the Guyana match has been played and the Bourda pitch assessed. As for the West Indies, Mervyn Dillon for Kenny Benjamin is one probable switch. If they are wise, too, their selectors will at least give themselves the option of playing one of the leg-spinners, Dininath Ramnarine or Rawl Lewis. England players say that they would settle for either in preference to one of the fast men but the truth is that they have got used to West Indies' fast bowling, however much they may not relish the physical challenge. Equally, their record against good leg-spin bowling is poor.

The force is with England now, however. The paradox of the result on Tuesday is that if the West Indies had won, England's tour would have been ruined, but now they are level in the series, they are the side with the impetus. If they had to win only one of the two Trinidad Tests, although in many ways they played better cricket in the first game, they chose the right one.

Source: The Electronic Telegraph
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Date-stamped : 19 Feb1998 - 10:21