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Touring party gaffe distracts from Test Atherton must win

By Christopher Martin-Jenkins

20 March 1998


A DIPLOMATIC row over an unattended reception hosted by the West Indies Cricket Board and financed by the sponsors, Cable and Wireless, was not the happiest way for England to approach the final Test of a constantly absorbing series in Antigua this morning.

The England team and management attended a private dinner party aboard Sir Paul Getty's yacht moored in St John's harbour on Wednesday rather than go to drinks and dinner at the Club Antigua, for which the sponsors claimed an invitation was issued last September.

A breakdown of communication is at the heart of the affair. As far as England are concerned the team have already exceeded the number of functions which they promised to attend.

Bob Bennett, the manager, who has to steer a careful course between keeping his players happy and not offending his hosts, said the letter had been sent to the West Indies Board last November by the England Cricket Board's tour director Simon Pack, undertaking to accept only two official functions, a dinner in Jamaica and cocktails in Trinidad.

``As an additional favour,'' said Bennett yesterday, ``I agreed with Steve Camacho that we would also go to the third of the four official receptions to which we were originally invited, in Barbados.

``Here, however, we had already agreed to one official evening at the British High Commission and, with only three evenings between back-to-back Tests, it was unreasonable to ask the players to attend to formal occasions.''

Speaking for the sponsors, however, Sonny Peart, the regional director of Cable and Wireless, said: ``There has never been an objection to this function in Antigua. The West Indies' Board aren't happy, we're not happy and local people aren't particularly happy either.''

With luck feathers will quickly unruffle once the game is underway at a ground much changed from the rustic one on which Viv Richards made a hundred in the first Test played here, against England in 1981.

To the tune of welders' torches, bulldozers, drills and hammers Prime Minister Lester Bird opened the handsome new Richie Richardson Stand at the War Memorial End yesterday, which had increased the capacity to 11,000. About 6,000 of the seats will be occupied by the army of England supporters, who have taken every available hotel bed on the island (and a few on offshore yachts).

They were shown remarkable hospitality in Barbados, not in every case deserved. The outfield in Bridgetown on Monday, sad to report, was littered with empty beer bottles after the close of play ceremony had been attended in full and all too vocal force by the football element among the crowd.

It would be a shame if this one were to be desecrated too. The returfing at the Antigua Recreation Ground is a major improvement. It will be slow and so, certainly, will the one part of the ground that really matters, the pitch.

Biscuit coloured and very flat, it was relaid two months ago. It is thinly covered with bare, dead grass, and if it helps any bowlers, it is bound to be the spinner.

The West Indies, with Junior Murray restored as wicketkeeper and Franklyn Rose brought back into the 13 but not expect to play, are likely to replace Ian Bishop with Dinanath Ramnarine and to consider also having Jimmy Adams back in place of Roland Holder at number six to make use of his ability to pick up useful wickets with his left-arm spin.

England have delayed naming their final XI in what speculation suggests - not for the first time - may be Mike Atherton's final Test as captain. The chairman of selectors David Graveney has made it plain that no decisions would be taken until the whole tour had been reviewed with his colleagues in the cool of an English spring.

Whether Atherton makes runs and England win, levelling the series 2-2 - which on the run of play to date would be no more than justice - will determine his willingness to continue.

There is some evidence to suggest that he is even wearier of the media speculation now than he was last summer, but that has always, quite rightly, worried him less than how he and his team are performing. Defeat here would certainly push him into a resignation, which would not this time be resisted.

England, however, looked the better team in Barbados, and it is Atherton's turn to win the toss. He would certainly bat, if so, whether or not Robert Croft is recalled. That would give England, with Mark Ramprakash, three spinners.

It was possibly significant that Alec Stewart was keeping wicket to Ramprakash during practice on excellent net pitches at the Club Antigua yesterday, because if Croft is to reclaim the place his form warrants, it would be at the expense of Jack Russell and not of one of the fast bowlers. In a game which has to be won on a flat pitch, the option of five specialist bowlers is attractive and David Lloyd and John Emburey are known to favour it.

The captain and his deputy Nasser Hussain are inclined towards Russell continuing at number seven, where his attacking innings last week began the transformation. It is a tough decision, but I think Russell to keep wicket and Stewart to round off a fine series by concentrating on batting is the right one.

Stewart yesterday signed a new five-year contract with Surrey, which will keep him at the Oval until he is 39. The county's captain Adam Hollioake has also signed a five-year contract and in both cases a basic salary of around 60,000 a year is believed to be involved. Surrey also announced a new six-figure club sponsorship from Computacentre. If the elusive Ben Hollioake can be persuaded to sign before he leaves London for Barbados today, their cup will be full.

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

West Indies (from): P A Wallace, C B Lambert, B C Lara (capt), S Chanderpaul, S L Hooper, R I C Holder, -J R Murray, F A Rose, C E L Ambrose, N A M McLean, C A Walsh, D Ramnarine, J C Adams.

Umpires: S A Bucknor & C J Mitchley (South Africa). TV umpire: P Whyte.


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Date-stamped : 20 Mar1998 - 11:59