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Battle Lines Drawn

by Tony Cozier/in KINGSTON

January 29 1998


THE time for the controversy and conjecture, of which there has been so much, has passed. The moment of truth is at hand for the West Indies and England at Sabina Park this morning for the start of a first Test that is almost certain to set the pattern of a series so critical for both teams.

The significance of the next two months is unmistakeable.

West Indies cricket has rarely been at such a low ebb as it is now, the Test team crushed 3-0 in Pakistan and the ‘A’ team similarly trounced in South Africa late last year, the Under-19 placed tenth in the more recent youth World Cup in which they lost to Zimbabwe and Bangladesh.

A conclusive triumph over England, to whom they have not bowed for 30 years, is imperative to restore pride and confidence among both players and public.

England have been through a somewhat longer period of denial, with Test series successes only against India and New Zealand in 10 years. There have been signs of a gradual revival in the past year, encouraging optimism that the long sequence of setbacks against the West Indies is about to end.

If such hopes are realised come the end of the series in late March, a turnaround of the fortunes of English cricket could be anticipated.

With such a background, it would be disappointing for the result to be decided not so much by skill of the 22 players as by the 22 yards of soil they must bat and bowl on.

The pitch has been the understandable centre of attention and, while it looked in far more presentable order yesterday, as the groundstaff continually rolled it with the heavy roller, than it did on Tuesday, there were still a lot of furrowed brows and dark mumblings from those who inspected it.

Brian Lara, the new West Indies captain charged with the daunting responsibility of reviving virtually the same team castigated by manager Clive Lloyd in Pakistan for lack of pride and commitment, made it plain that he did not expect the match to last five days.

“The pitch looks a bit uneven today but I don’t know what the situation is going to be like tomorrow,” he said. “It’s very difficult to see it going five days but, if that’s the case, at the end of the day, we want to be the successful team.”

Coach Malcolm Marshall and Ian Botham, the former England all-rounder here as a television commentator, independently compared it to the Sabina Park pitch of 1986 – when Marshall smashed Mike Gatting’s nose with a ball that climbed from a length, Patrick Patterson on debut frightened the wits out of everyone and the Test was over in three days.

“It looks the same, the only question is whether it is as hard,” Botham observed.

The old familiar shine had returned to the surface by early afternoon but the cracks remained visible. Dug up and relaid last October, the square has not yet had time to settle and, in the only first-class match played on it to day – Jamaica against Barbados three weeks ago – the bounce was uneven.

On that occasion, it also turned but that is a factor ignored by the West Indies selectors – and unlikely to interest England’s either.

“Spinners haven’t done very well in Tests in Jamaica, certainly not during my time of playing, and we decided very early to have six fast bowlers to have every option of what we needed here, so we’ve got six,” Lara said. “It’s nice to know we’ve got six to chose from although it’s make the deliberations on the final eleven a bit longer.

The certainty is that Lara will want his two most experienced bowlers, Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose, with him with two further places to be decided between Ian Bishop, Franklyn Rose, Mervyn Dillon and Nixon McLean.

England, denied their fastest bowler, Darren Gough, through injury two weeks before the team left, will have Dean Headley, on the ground his great grandfather, George, made his own back in the 1930s, Andy Caddick and the perennial Gus Fraser to respond with medium-pace help from all-rounder Adam Hollioake, passed fit to play after a workout on his strained right shoulder yesterday.

In both pace and experience, the West Indies attack is superior but perseverance and accuracy are two equally valuable assets. In addition, England have the variety of a specialist spinner in the left-arm Phil Tufnell, the West Indies have the straightforward – if not necessarily straight – off-spin of Carl Hooper.

It will be an unwanted distraction for the new skipper but also a immediate test of his character and maturity. There will be many more to come.

TEAMS:

West Indies (from): Brian Lara (captain), Sherwin Campbell, Stuart Williams, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Carl Hooper, Jimmy Adams, David Williams, Ian Bishop, Curtly Ambrose, Franklyn Rose, Courtney Walsh, Mervyn Dillon, Nixon McLean.

England (likely): Mike Atherton (captain), Alec Stewart, John Crawley, Nasser Hussain, Graham Thorpe, Adam Hollioake, Jack Russell, Andy Caddick, Angus Fraser, Dean Headley, Phil Tufnell.

Umpires: Steve Bucknor (Jamaica), Srinivas Venkataraghavan (India).


Source: The Barbados Nation
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Date-stamped : 25 Feb1998 - 19:25