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Tufnell to lose place as pressure grows on Atherton

Christopher Martin-Jenkins

4 March 1998

NO decisions will be taken until the England team fly to Barbados tomorrow but the first reaction of the coach, David Lloyd, to the 242-run defeat by the West Indies in the fourth Test in Georgetown was to hint that Phil Tufnell would be a more likely casualty than Jack Russell.

What is certain is that when the time for decision comes, before the Bridgetown Test begins next Thursday, the ever-recurring question will have to be asked again: whether to enter a match which has to be won with Alec Stewart keeping wicket or to rely again on only four bowlers.

The careers of Russell and Tufnell are at stake and so, in the matches in Barbados and Antigua which will decide the outcome of the Cable and Wireless series during the next three weeks, is the long-term future of the captain, Mike Atherton.

Four years ago a Test defeat in Guyana for a leader who was still wet behind the ears was tempered by the very considerable double consolation of an outstanding century by himself and the chance to meet Isabel de Caires, the sister of a Guyanese friend from his Cambridge days who has been his girlfriend since.

The value of a steady relationship will help to stabilise Atherton now and it would be surprising if, three weeks short of his 30th birthday, he is not contemplating marriage, but on the field he has never been in greater need of a personal batting performance of real significance. The paradox of the last two England tours has been that while Atherton's touch in the field has become sharper, his batting has lost authority.

Figures prove less about Atherton than most batsmen because when the chips are down he often produces an innings which belies his form. But he could not do it against Curtly Ambrose on a bad pitch on Monday - no disgrace in itself - and his successes have been isolated since he averaged 55 in South Africa two winters ago.

He made a laboured century against India at Trent Bridge when he came home, it is true. But 1996 marked the first of two seasons of modest achievement for Lancashire and against one excellent series in New Zealand last winter must be weighed a succession of disappointing ones against Pakistan, Zimbabwe, Australia and now the West Indies. His Test innings have produced 96 at an average of only 13.

Unless the captain can give a positive lead with the bat England are not going to win the last two Tests, a task which both Atherton and Lloyd firmly believe is not beyond them. It is not a question of being badly out of form, as it was before he turned things round last winter in Auckland. He has batted well outside the Tests in both Jamaica and Trinidad. Rather, he has suffered through a combination of bad pitches and the indomitable will, physical might and sheer bowling expertise of Ambrose and Courtney Walsh.

The captain must decide now whether he would be better advised to rest and practise in the nets or to play against Barbados in the three-day match against the island starting on Saturday. That will be a game of unusual significance for this stage of a tour, with Sherwin Campbell needing runs even more than Atherton and several of the Bajans, including Roland Holder, also hoping to catch the selectors' eyes.

Lloyd pointed out yesterday that Stewart is the odd man out among the four opening batsmen on the two sides. Atherton, Campbell and Stuart Williams - who will probably lose his place to Holder - have all failed and Stewart alone has consistently looked like getting on top of the bowling.

It is clear that England will be reluctant to abandon one basic strategy for this series, namely to allow Stewart to concentrate on opening the batting. The very fact that it was his hundreds in each innings which laid the base for the astonishing victory in Barbados four years ago will probably dissuade the selectors from asking him to keep wicket again next week.

If England want to give themselves the maximum chance in the last two Tests, however, the pragmatic decision would be to drop their specialist keeper and to make a choice between Tufnell and Adam Hollioake on what promises to be the best batting pitch of the series so far.

Ironically, it was Stewart's dropped catch at second slip which probably cost England their biggest chance of staying in the Bourda Test with an effective chance after the first morning. Had the West Indies been 55 for three, with their subsequent century-maker and man-of-the-match, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, back in the pavilion, the huge advantage of winning the toss on so arid a pitch might have been nullified.

Lloyd was wrong to say yesterday that England did not have the breaks because if anything the majority of marginal umpiring decisions favoured them, but he was right that the game was lost because of a combination of the toss and failing to take chances. As he said: ``In those conditions we need to play our best and we didn't.''

The coach was correct, too, to stress how difficult it is to keep wicket in the West Indies on the majority of pitches now produced here. Russell has missed opportunities, and so has his counterpart, David Williams. The favoured option seems to be to drop Tufnell rather than Russell and to bring back Andrew Caddick, but the match at the weekend gives time for further reflection.

Source: The Electronic Telegraph
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Date-stamped : 04 Mar1998 - 14:19