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Old guns still remorselessly on target

By Mark Nicholas

4 March 1998

IN Georgetown, Guyana, on Monday, the best of English batting was blown away by yet more brutally effective fast bowling from the West Indies. For this, salute Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh, two of cricket history's most impressive practitioners of this demanding skill.

They may not bowl with much aesthetic appeal but they have their specific unyielding style and they bowl with a chilling combination of the heart they have for representing their people, and the heads they have for the discipline and intelligence that is required of them to have become so irresistible.

For more than a generation of cricket followers, this is an old story with a new chapter about a two-pronged attack doing the work of the famed four-pronged attack of the Eighties. The astonishing stamina and commitment of Walsh and Ambrose suggests that they are not done yet. In fact, it may be that this West Indies team have not done yet with England.

There are indications within their ranks of a growing trust for one another, of insecure individuals emerging from themselves and of their grasp of England, who they suspect have played their strongest card.

If the West Indies can win so comprehensively after the mess they made of the third day's play - remember the lethargic Ambrose-less morning and the careless batting of the afternoon then heaven knows what is in store for the tourists if the home team get their act together with a bit of consistency. There is a lingering feeling that Brian Lara's captaincy can be deliberately obtuse and a suspicion that the sheer enormity of his aura was unbalancing the dressing room.

Rumour told us that on that third morning the team were convinced of one way to approach the day until Lara and vice-captain Carl Hooper came into the dressing room and informed them, in a fait accompli, of another. Clearly the other was to save Ambrose for the main business with Michael Atherton and Alec Stewart after the West Indies had enforced the follow on. Equally clearly, it went wrong and Lara was too stubborn to call up Ambrose and, by doing so, admit openly that he had been wrong.

Potentially there was a problem here - a problem amplified incidentally by the mauling given to the West Indies captain in the Caribbean press on the fourth morning - but by winning the game inside four days, Lara's team have exonerated him and even perhaps elevated his standing. Certainly, at the moment the match was won, the captain was king in the celebrations.

The problems now are with England, who once more under Atherton have to rise from apparent ashes and win against the odds. One wonders if they can do so with Atherton himself, previously such a rock, finding it so difficult to make a substantial score. And with only four bowlers, none of whom are near the class of their two incisive opponents.

As a general observation, and to a degree Angus Fraser has been an exception, England take wickets as much through West Indian indiscretion or the vagaries of a pitch as through their doing. This is no fault of individuals, it is a fact. English cricket is short of match-winners and match-winning bowling more specifically. Therefore they cannot afford to miss a beat in a match, let alone drift out of a session. To see Ian Bishop and Dinanath Ramnarine bat through the fourth morning and put on a record 70 and then to see England's finest players brushed aside by the West Indian bowlers, as if they were irritants delaying a rite of passage, was to witness the fundamental influences of the series.

This is the point, England are actually being bowled out. Very few of the top six during this series could be convicted for the way they have been dismissed; it has been that quality bowling on pretty ordinary pitches has had the last word. The West Indies can afford a sloppy day because Ambrose or Walsh will come to their rescue. How often Atherton must have wished for their like or for a Warne or Mushtaq to do the same for him.

The pitches, which admittedly have made for absorbing cricket, are not good enough. Why the Caribbean should so suddenly have a collection of minefields at their Test match grounds no one is quite sure. The series this time last year, against India, was desperately dull because all the pitches bar the one in Barbados were so lifeless. It seems as if every ground authority decided to relay their squares at the same time and that England are on the end of it.

Now they go to Barbados, a stronghold of West Indian cricket, where ironically last year's Test against India was a thriller which ended in three days. In the fourth innings, India were unable to chase 120 to win in the face of Brian Lara's captaincy for the first time for the West Indies, Franklin Rose, who was in favour then and is oddly out of favour now, and . . . you've guessed him, Curtly Ambrose.

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Date-stamped : 04 Mar1998 - 14:19