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It's a question of batting

by Tony Cozier

Sunday February 22 1998

THE two tense, fascinating Tests at the QueenŐs Park Oval have set up an enthralling series.

While the contests were memorable, the cricket itself never was. It seldom is on pitches where the batsmen are rewarded more for hard graft than dazzling strokeplay.

Phil Tufnell wheeling away for over after over outside leg-stump with an eccentric wicket-keeper in a helmet and sunglasses peeping around the batsmenŐs backsides for a view of the ball and free spirits such as Carl Hooper, Alec Stewart and Nasser Hussain battling away for five hours and more without a hundred to show for their labour is hardly the ideal advertisement for Test cricket.

Still, the results have refloated a series that had hardly left port and was sinking as fast as the Titanic.

The flotsam and jetsam of Sabina Park are now distant, if not meaningless, memories. It is one-all and there is everything to play for.

It is a fair position. Neither team truly deserved to be 2-0 up, as so could so easily been the case but for a dropped catch or six, countless millimetre passes of the edge of uncertain bats and the steely nerves of the admirable umpires.

Clive Lloyd, the West Indies manager, anticipates smoother sailing on calmer waters for his team.

He believes batting conditions in Trinidad were better suited to the disciplined grafters of England than his own impatient strokemakers and that the faster, truer pitches he expects at Bourda, Kensington and the ARG will be appreciated more by his younger fast bowling support for Ambrose and Courtney Walsh.

His namesake, David, the highly-strung England coach, is now breathing easier after the trauma of the second Test that apparently almost reduced him to tears. He is buoyant again and believes the force is now with his lot.

It is an intriguing situation. There are a few essential factors. One is whether the West Indies batsmen, with the captain to the fore, can find the judgment, the commitment and the form to reverse a trend for low totals that has become endemic.

Another is how the main bowlers, Ambrose and Walsh for the West Indies and Angus Fraser for England, will react physically to the considerable strain placed on their aging muscles in Port-of-Spain and to the further work ahead.

The West Indies cannot expect to win if they continue to collapse as they have done so repeatedly over the past few years.

Four years ago, against much the same attack (Fraser and Caddick were EnglandŐs main wicket-takers and Tufnell, the spinner, in the last two Tests), Brian Lara was in record-scoring mode, Jimmy Adams was announcing himself as Mr. Reliable and the 19-year-old Shivnarine Chanderpaul was appearing for the first time, all averaging above 50.

The West Indies totalled over 500 twice, over 400 once and never below 200. And even then there was trouble at the top of the order with the highest opening stand only 66.

A return to such consistency would remove much of the burden with which Ambrose, Walsh and the bowlers have been loaded for so long.

And they certainly need the relief. Walsh sent down 103 overs, Ambrose 93 in the debilitating heat in Port-of-Spain and they face two more back-to-back Tests in Barbados and Antigua that are likely to determine the series.

The same holds good for Fraser, who had 88 overs in the two Tests in Trinidad.

What his physical condition would be like come Antigua should the West Indies keep him in the field for a day-and-a-half in each of the preceding Tests is a prospect England would rather not have to consider.

The plain truth is that Lara and Mike Atherton have had to rely far too heavily on these key men. In Port-of-Spain, even if with reason, they trusted no one else.

LaraŐs dependence on Ambrose and Walsh, who, as always, responded so magnificently to the challenge, emphasised perhaps the most bothersome aspect of the West Indies cricket so far.

Prior to the series, if there was one department that was not short-staffed, it was fast bowling.

There was a stock of young successors who appeared ready to take over whenever Ambrose and Walsh took their leave which, at one stage, seemed likely to have been right away. The reality has proved worryingly different.

The selectors recalled Kenny Benjamin, at the age of 30, while Franklyn Rose, the leading wicket-taker in his debut season last season, canŐt even get a game, and Mervyn Dillon, with five wickets in an innings against Pakistan in his last Test match, only his third overall, has also remained on the outside.

The one who has got in, the pacy Nixon McLean, was granted only 13 overs in a Test in which the two senior men send down 103 between them.

It is clear, and understandable, especially after the setback in Pakistan, that the West Indies attitude is now-for-now and that winning is the first, indeed only objective.

Once that is achieved, so the argument goes, much else will fall into place.

Yet the less often the younger players are given their head, the more daunting the not-too-distant challenge of South Africa and Australia becomes.

Source: The Barbados Nation
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Date-stamped : 23 Feb1998 - 22:27