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Partnerships forged in new English steel

By Mark Nicholas

20 March 1998

IN THE main, England's cricket during the Barbados Test was very good. There were loopholes, some expected, and others, such as the early departures of Michael Atherton and Alec Stewart on the first morning, not so expected. The relevant point, though, for the team to take into today's Test in Antigua is that they adhered to the accepted principle of the best way to play against the present-day West Indians and stuck to it remorselessly.

When Australia came to the Caribbean three years ago and won so famously, their tactic was to bat first, and if not first then once, and grind out a competitive score come what may. Then to bowl a disciplined length, which so infuriates West Indies batsmen, before bouncing the eyeballs out of the tail or sending Shane Warne in for the kill.

This was much as England went about things in Barbados and, given the unpromising lunchtime score of 55 for four, having been put in to bat on the first day, they can reflect proudly on the steel that has clearly infiltrated their previous carelessness.

The partnership that did it, that gave England the oxygen to reach the final day so well-positioned on what was a remarkably good pitch, between Graham Thorpe and Mark Ramprakash, illustrated a number of important things.

The value of left and right-handed batsmen, for a start, who naturally complement each other and upset the line of opposing bowlers. The value, too, of team-mates enjoying each other's success and developing confidence in their strokeplay from it the joy on the face of Ramprakash when he reached a hundred is an image which will forever live in the memory.

Then there is the compact, uncomplicated play that is the hallmark of stockier, less tall batsmen, who seem to mesmerise bowlers into a length which suits them -even Curtly Ambrose was not quite able to catch Ramprakash out of position as he would like -and the fast, precise footwork that is the key to all the very best players.

A mention here, too, for Jack Russell, who has had an uncomfortable tour. An important reason for recalling him to English colours was to stiffen the lower middle-order batting which had looked so feeble against Australia last summer; that, and the release of Stewart to open the batting without further distraction.

An argument could be made for the release of Stewart having worked, but the Russell thing, up until Barbados, had fallen flat. This dedicated, detailed and unusual cricketer was clearly not himself. His wicketkeeping has not been up to scratch because, I suspect, he is not watching the ball the whole way into his gloves, and his batting had lost its energy.

In Barbados, he came to the crease when England most needed him, 55 for four and Thorpe on the physio's bench, and attacked. He made 32 priceless runs and used up enough time for Thorpe to recover from his back problem and resume his innings. It was from the Russell-Ramprakash platform that England made their opportunity to grasp the match. Thorpe and then steady bowling helped Ramprakash keep hold of it.

Whether England would have bowled out the West Indies on what became the final depressing day of rain would surely have depended on the contribution of Philip Tufnell. It is an odd reflection on Tufnell, on English spinners in general in fact, that he has probably retained his place ahead of Robert Croft because of the left-handers in the West Indies team rather than because he will turn the ball away from the right-handers.

By bowling into the rough outside the left-hander's off stump, he has made life difficult for Shivnarine Chanderpaul, and previously Jimmy Adams, and best of all from England's perspective, has subdued Brian Lara.

IS IT that English spinners will not bowl out a Test match team in the orthodox way any more? Tufnell, for sure, needs batsmen to play strokes against him and help in their own demise. Croft less so, possibly, but Croft's best performances, against New Zealand last winter, came as much through poor batting as through vicious spin or unplayable levels of bounce.

For all the good cricket England can play, they miss being able to send in a Warne for the kill. If they are to level this series, they need first to win the toss and then for Stewart and Atherton to lay the foundations of a challenging score before the disciplined bowling that they showed as a unit in Barbados, and will strive for again in Antigua, begins its examination of the West Indies indisciplined batting.

Source: The Electronic Telegraph
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Date-stamped : 20 Mar1998 - 11:59