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No carnival batting first on this pitch

Christopher Martin-Jenkins

13 February 1998

ENGLAND'S chances of bouncing back immediately from their shattering defeat in Trinidad earlier this week could depend on the toss of a coin this morning.

It may be that the pitch for the third Test, the surface originally prepared for this game, will dry out into a truer pitch than its next door neighbour on which the West Indies obtained a three-wicket victory on Monday, but whoever bats first today looks certain to have an uncomfortable time.

It is not ideal for a game which could make or break the rest of the series. If England bat first and get bowled out cheaply today, the fate more often than not of teams batting first these days at the Queen's Park Oval, all their months of hard work might have burst like a balloon tonight. If they field first, Dean Headley and, especially, Andrew Caddick, will get a great opportunity to make amends for their failure to exploit the dry, uneven, second Test pitch.

Sufficient dampness still lay beneath the green and grey patches on the neighbouring strip yesterday for the toss-winning captain to have no hesitation in bowling first. There is no conspiracy here: if there were the pitch would not have been left open to the elements yesterday to allow the wind and sun to get at it.

That is a notable contrast to the day before the Test eight years ago when England had gone one up in the series and a deliberate gamble was taken to start the match on a much damper pitch than this one. This time the accident which led to back-to-back Tests left the groundsman with no option but to flood his square on Monday afternoon as soon as Carl Hooper had hit the winning runs.

Cloudy, showery weather followed on the next two days - the forecast is fine for the match itself - and the result is a pitch which is bound to suit fast bowlers on the first day.

Mike Atherton has called right in both matches so far. The borderline decision he took to bat last week had no effect on the eventual outcome either way. This time, though the ground manager, Bryan Davis, was promising yesterday that the blades will be set to their lowest level for the final mow, even England's unflappable captain would be foolish to risk batting first against the rejuvenated Curtly Ambrose on the ground where he followed his six for 24 in 1994 with the five for 16 spell on Sunday which began the game's volte-face.

The appearance of pitches can be deceptive in the Caribbean. This is the strip on which Brian Lara scored a double hundred in the Trinidad North v South match a month ago. The trend of scoring here is downward, however. In the 1970s, the average total in Tests was 310; in the 1980s, 268. In the 1990s, in seven Tests of which West Indies have now won four and drawn three, it is 240. El Nino and the drier weather it has created in these parts (even in Guyana, on the notoriously wet South American coast nearby, there has been a drought since last July) should guard against the sort of game Australia suffered here three years ago - 156 overs in all; top score 136.

The oddest statistics at present concern Lara, who is naturally a more relaxed character since Hooper and David Williams bailed him out of trouble earlier this week. He has gone eight innings now since his 10th Test hundred but, stranger still, he has not scored a Test century in 10 matches on his home ground. As Hooper showed with his first fifty on a square not suited to natural strokemakers, these trends do not last forever. Lara and the West Indian team as a whole must now be genuinely confident that they will win the series.

Atherton did his best to be positive, too, describing the experience of playing a tense five-day match in temperatures which reached 36C as one of the most draining matches he has played in. He pointed out, too, that his side had proved over the first three days they could compete on even terms. Unfortunately they had already proved that in England in 1995. The trick is to win tight matches, not lose them.

``Never relax'' was the lesson the captain feels England have to draw from throwing away the second Test when they led by 251 with six wickets in hand. ``A Test match victory doesn't just drop into your lap,'' he added. ``I don't think we bottled it; we just didn't play with enough conviction.''

England practised hard yesterday morning on net pitches which were themselves unpredictable. Mark Ramprakash was struck on the forearm playing forward to the first ball he received, from Mark Butcher. Between them, these two have faced one ball in a match on the tour so far, though both should probably have been given a chance in the two-day game against Trinidad at Guaracara Park.

There will be changes if England go two down but Atherton indicated that there will be none this time, provided Adam Hollioake suffers no reaction after bowling with a stiff back and that the mild flu bug affecting Nasser Hussain and one or two others does not spread further.

For those who are fit, Port of Spain is throbbing with life at present. Fifty thousand exiled Trinidadians are back, some for Test cricket, the majority for carnival. The British supporters who have also flown into the capital on Jumbo after Jumbo in the last two days are praying for the first West Indian defeat here since Pakistan won in 1976. It is unlikely, but the alternative is prolonged anticlimax.

West Indies (probable): S L Campbell, S C Williams, *B V Lara, C L Hooper, S Chanderpaul, J C Adams, -D Williams, C E L Ambrose, K C G Benjamin, N A M McLean, C A Walsh.

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

Umpires: E Nicholls, D Hair (Australia).

Match referee: B Jarman (Australia).

Source: The Electronic Telegraph
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Date-stamped : 13 Feb1998 - 10:26