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Trinidad's level playing field evens up the contest

By Mark Nicholas

5 February 1998

THRILLINGLY, and against the best team in the world, England won the last Test match in which they played. That fine performance against Australia at the Oval was a long time ago, more than five months, so for once it will be a lack of match practice that concerns the England camp this morning, rather than staleness or mental fatigue.

Motivation will not have been in David Lloyd's message to his team last night, more the need to ensure that England concentrate fiercely through this first day's play and adopt the sort of discipline and intensity that characterised their cricket in the opening Test match of last summer at Edgbaston, when the nation watched agog as the ``underdone'' Australians were brushed aside.

Almost certainly, though, the abandonment of the first Test, which has led to another week of heel-kicking for England, will have worked in their favour. Further play at Sabina Park would have suited the West Indians, whose bowlers are ideally built to exploit uneven bounce and variations in the pace of a pitch, and some of whose batsmen have fast enough reactions to make something of such awkward conditions.

It was not by luck that they beat Australia on an appalling pitch in Perth this time last year. It was because, to a degree, such a pitch allows their bowlers to bully opponents and inspires the batting genius in Brian Lara - he made a hundred in Perth - to rise above the mortals with whom he plays.

Now, back on a level playing field in Trinidad - we hope England's collective spirit and their increasing skill should play the part that it might not have been allowed to play in Jamaica. Indeed, had the first Test gone the distance and the West Indies won, the bickering and uncertainty that has haunted the islands since the team's humiliation in Pakistan might well have been forgotten, while at the same time the psychological scars on England may have negated the good work done by the management over the winter.

Having seen at first hand the attitude, preparation and first Test match performance of the last six England tours, I can honestly say that this team look the most self-assured and therefore the most likely. It is not the most talented of the teams of the Nineties - it seems strangely short of fast bowling should Dean Headley or Andy Caddick be injured - but it is the best prepared and most efficiently organised since Graham Gooch's party here eight years ago.

Selection has been pretty consistent, though by heavens Mark Ramprakash gets a raw deal; he was, after all, in the team that beat Australia at the Oval, batted well himself in a low-scoring match and could reasonably have expected to have held on to his place and the England Cricket Board, through the chairman, Lord MacLaurin, have made quite clear what they expect of English cricketers as ambassadors overseas.

This leadership has brought stability and, as the cricket in Sharjah proved, brought confidence too. Overall, the players are a less insular, less suspicious bunch than they have been on previous tours and with the signs of maturity spilling into daily life as well as into the convincing practice sessions, expectations of a rewarding series are realistic.

Certainly this does not appear to be a lie-down-and-die sort of lot and the strong sentiment from Michael Atherton after the Sabina Park business, that England would much prefer a five-Test series, indicated the team's inner strength. Imagine a decade ago, advocating five Tests against the West Indies when you need only play four!

All of which was summed up by the impressive Dean Headley when he said the other day that he did not think that England were the underdogs, that they truly believed they could, would win and that if they did not perform well they should expect to have to account for themselves.

Spirit and form were good, he added, and everything that could have been done to smoothe the pathway to success - except of course tougher match practice and more of it - had been done. It's down to us now, he said with some authority.

Good on him and may his honesty in conversation, his dignity throughout the Headley family feting in Jamaica and his own encouraging form on the field thus far be trademark signs of a new England abroad.

Source: The Electronic Telegraph
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Date-stamped : 25 Feb1998 - 19:22