By Scyld Berry
ROBERT CROFT maintained England's happy mood with a long and accurate spell, which put the tourists in early charge of their three-day game against Guyana at the Everest ground. The Test victory which was finally achieved on Tuesday afternoon has made all the difference to their tour. It is the difference between a holiday camp and a prison camp.
By taking four of the six Guyanese wickets to fall before tea, Croft advanced his name for the fourth Test starting on Friday, whether in place of Phil Tufnell or as a second spinner to be matched with two seamers. The latter would be a bold innovation, and could not be done if the Test pitch at Bourda remains anything like as grassy as it is now. But it is nice for England to be spoilt for choice after Croft's 22-over spell for 35 runs.
A well-organised ground, though this is its inaugural first-class match, did nothing to mar England's lightheartedness. The Everest Club used to be the East Indian Club in the years before independence (Rohan Kanhai, the stroke-making genius, represented it when he moved here from the country) when the Portuguese had their own club, and the Chinese theirs, and so on; and the East Indians have always been wealthier, or rather less poor, than most Guyanese communities.
The ground was at the same level as the sea beyond the wall when the match began; not the Caribbean Sea, but the Atlantic, as mud brown as it is off English shores. At high tide it becomes below sea level, hence the dykes around the ground, beyond which a fair crowd - or rather a swarthy one - built up. The pavilion and single stand were well-populated too, both of them wooden, as cricket grounds still are in Guyana.
Chris Silverwood, on his first outing of the tour, straightened up as soon as he had found his feet and reproduced the wholehearted fast-medium pace that he has been bowling in the nets all tour. He dismissed Clayton Lambert, Guyana's left-handed opener, with a fine ball which slanted across his defensive bat and was edged to first slip. Guyana have been clamouring for Lambert, who played one Test at the Oval in 1991, to be recalled as a West Indies opener.
Silverwood almost had another wicket the ball before he dismissed Lambert, when he dropped short at Nicholas de Groot, who is not discernibly Dutch. Ashley Cowan, at fine leg, was celebrating his catch off a hard-hit hook, only to find that it was a no ball.
In the absence of a third seamer, England used Mark Butcher, who responded as gamely as ever to his latest challenge. He was so comfortably up with the pace at No 6 in the second of the Trinidad Tests, and it is so advantageous to have an opener down the order against West Indian bowling and the second new ball, that England's selectors will be tempted to leave Butcher there rather than promote him to three.
It is a waste, though, to have England's three left-handers bunched together at five, six and seven, when they could be spread out to disrupt the line of the West Indian bowlers. Butcher would be happier, too, up the order, and a player's preference is a major consideration. Most of all, England have a bigger vacancy at three, where John Crawley and Mark Ramprakash have never yet succeeded, though they do at six, where they have both scored Test runs in the past. Adam Hollioake could also slot in.
Butcher's introduction has also increased England's overt spirit in the field. When Carl Hooper (the Guyanese captain, who is not bothering with this match) and David Williams were knocking off the runs in the first of the back-to-back Tests, England badly missed Darren Gough's exuberance. The majority of this team are sober-serious, which is fine, providing they have one cheerleader in the field and a chap like Butcher - extrovert enough to play in a south London pub band - could naturally fill this vacancy.
Like Silverwood and Cowan, Butcher found little bounce in a pitch which could have passed as East Indian, being a slow, low turner, dry and bleached, albeit it with some dead grass. Jack Russell has grown accustomed on this tour to the ball bouncing twice before it reaches him, but when he is standing up it is a little too much.
So England's two spinners were on together almost half an hour before lunch to enjoy the sub-continental conditions and hot cross-winds. Phil Tufnell was handicapped by having thrown his shoulder out when England's opening bowlers began loosely and he had some chasing to do at mid-on.
Croft, after being considerately kept informed of England's mounting rugby union score against Wales, struck back when he had Keith Semple leg before on the back foot with a ball pushed through faster.
Croft's second wicket followed after lunch when the 17-year-old prodigy Ramnaresh Sarwan played both back and on. Croft found the right pace and kept to it. De Groot mis-swept, Tarivs Dowlin skied to mid-on and Croft would have had a fifth wicket earlier than he did if Tufnell had not been so slow at square leg. Chanderpaul edged Adam Hollioake to Russell.
Tufnell has done everything required of him as a stock bowler, conceding no more than 125 runs from his 78.2 Test overs. But he has taken only two wickets, and he has tried nothing to break the deadlock - not even going round the wicket - when the left-handers of the West Indian middle order have padded him away.
The sixth Test at the Recreation Ground, to be played from March 20-24, will be staged on a lush green outfield and a good pitch, according to the Antigua Cricket Association. The ACA president, Colin Derrick, has confirmed that preparations of the newly laid pitch and outfield are proceeding according to schedule.
Day 2: Ramprakash takes his opportunity to impress
PATIENCE truly is a virtue and there was just reward this weekend for two cricketers who have spent most of England's tour of the West Indies either pounding the streets on training runs or trying to pretend that net practice is a substitute for the real thing, writes Christopher Martin-Jenkins.
After Robert Croft's six for 50 on Saturday, Mark Ramprakash took the chance which finally came his way in the three-day match against Guyana at the Everest Cricket Club, not only by making top score but by batting altogether better than any of his colleagues.
He had one heart-stopping moment just before lunch when he had made three and the wicketkeeper and close fielders went up for a caught-behind appeal after a ball had clearly spun past his edge. Against pace and spin thereafter, on a slow, bare, turning pitch, he played with great skill and composure. This was not the innings of a man of weak temperament. On the contrary, the pressure was on him for several reasons: it was his first innings of the tour, his side were in trouble, and his chances of returning to the England side when the fourth Test starts on Friday probably depended, however justly, on the way he played here.
The signs were that he was still down the queue. With Alec Stewart and Graham Thorpe missing this game, those who played in the third Test in Trinidad were given precedence, Mark Butcher opening with Mike Atherton and John Crawley remaining at No 3. Ramprakash came to the crease when England were tottering at 56 for three against the left-arm spin of Neil McGarrell. In the over after he arrived that became 56 for four as Atherton drove at a wide offside ball from Reon King and edged it to the wicketkeeper.
McGarrell, with a three-pace approach to the stumps and an easy swing of the bowling arm, except when he fired in a quicker arm ball, was also taking the chance to make an attempt at Test selection, in future if not immediately. He can only have impressed the watching chairman of selectors, Wes Hall, as he claimed three for 18 before lunch with a posse of close fielders and a nimble, loquacious wicketkeeper in support. The latter, Vishal Naganmootoo, had already excelled himself with his pugnacious 55 the evening before.
McGarrell was not, but probably should have been, a member of the West Indies A side who recently went to South Africa. He claimed Butcher lbw as he aimed to clip through midwicket, surprised the luckless Crawley with a quicker ball which just removed his bails off the bottom edge as he pushed forward after a confident start, then had Nasser Hussain leg-before with a similar ball.
Ramprakash and Adam Hollioake repaired the damage by adding 75 in the afternoon session, matching each other run for run, though there was no doubt that Hollioake was the more vulnerable, less polished batsman. As usual he made up for any essential lack of class with his positive approach and a willingness to take any scoring opportunity but it was in looking to dominate more than he had been able to that he was bowled, aiming a force off the back foot, three overs before tea.
Jack Russell soon paid for an equally vain attempt to force the pace, a top-edged sweep resulting in a lobbed catch. Thus did Ramprakash and Croft, deservedly the man of the moment, find themselves holding things together. This they did in a seventh-wicket partnership marked by some attractive and assertive batting. Croft had already won laurels for his six wickets on Saturday, during which he got turn from the start and made excellent use of the stiffish breeze from the sea into which he wheeled for 33 overs.
One of the conclusions from events in this game is that England should be thinking seriously of playing both their specialist spinners on Friday, certainly if the Bourda pitch is going to be as bare as this one at Everest. The amount of grass left on the Test pitch will help to determine this. So, perhaps, may the reluctance on the part of any English team to go into an important match with only two fast bowlers.
Both Hollioake and Butcher bowled useful spells on Saturday. In Hollioake's favour is his reputation for having a golden arm which defeats good players. On Saturday it was Guyana's best batsman, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, who had played Croft better than anyone, only to edge a cut to Russell.
The thick seam on the balls being used is an additional reason for continuing to rely on the faster bowlers, with either Phil Tufnell or Croft operating mainly as a stock bowler, as much as anything to keep control. The width of the seam has certainly helped Angus Fraser to achieve his extraordinary figures so far.
Day 3: Spinners stake their claim for Test selection
ON a pitch like a dried-up river bed, Phil Tufnell and Robert Croft bowled England to the brink of victory over Guyana yesterday despite resistance from the captain, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, an old head on 23-year-old shoulders, writes Christopher Martin-Jenkins.
By bowling out Guyana for 131 in their second innings and taking five wickets apiece, Tufnell and Croft set up a run chase requiring England to make 77 from 14 overs in the final hour of the game.
In being threatened by defeat yesterday there was consolation for Guyana that in 25-year-old Neil McGarrell, who finished England's first innings with a career-best seven for 74 in only his 14th first-class game, we were probably seeing the next Guyanese Test player. If so, the Lancashire club Church, for whom he will play this summer, will be pleased.
It is doubtful that the young left-arm orthodox spinner will be named in the side for the fourth Test, which was picked yesterday and is announced today, but the performance of both England's spinners must surely have enhanced the prospect of two specialist slow bowlers playing on Friday if the Bourda pitch looks anything like this one at Everest CC.
With a three-day buffer between this game and the fourth Test, England could perhaps have done with a four-day rather than a three-day game against Guyana. It would certainly have guaranteed them the victory which looked possible as the game entered its final hour. Despite achieving a first-innings lead of only 55 after the overnight pair of Mark Ramprakash and Croft had been unable to extend their excellent seventh-wicket partnership beyond the first half-hour of another hot day, England would actually have glimpsed their opportunity earlier had Mike Atherton got his two spinners on together earlier than he did.
There was significance, perhaps, in the fact that it was Croft, who had outbowled Tufnell in the first innings, who was given the first opportunity. If only one spinner is chosen on Friday his all-round performance here might well have tipped the scales his way. Just to make the rivalry between team-mates a little more piquant, however, Tufnell, bowling down the breeze, with the muddy Atlantic behind him, proceeded to produce one of his best and flightiest spells of the tour.
He began the damage by luring the two openers, Nicholas de Groot and Clayton Lambert, further down the pitch than they wanted to go, the first caught at midwicket, the second at short leg. Quite suddenly both spinners were in among their opponents like a pair of foxes in a hen hutch. Both the slim, small, wristy right-hander de Groot and his heavyweight left-handed partner had played attractively in an opening partnership of 71 against some worthy bowling by Chris Silverwood and Ashley Cowan. They will hope for something livelier and more suited to fast bowling if and when they play in the last first-class match outside the Tests in 10 days' time. That could be Cowan's last chance to take a wicket on the tour.
Until Guyana's captain blazed away with panache after tea, perhaps putting the performance of England's spinners against an otherwise inexperienced team into perspective, Tufnell and Croft had things all their own way. They were supported by some outstanding fielding, not least the diving catch to his right at slip by which Nasser Hussain ended Chanderpaul's innings. The last three wickets had gone only six overs later, leaving England with what promised to be an intriguing run-chase on what was now a distinctly awkward pitch.
McGarrell had taken three of the four remaining first-innings wickets in the morning after Ramprakash had given the persevering Colin Stuart a deserved success in the seventh over of the day. He was caught behind driving furiously outside the off stump, having just played a hook with crisp perfection. In all the circumstances it was an outstanding innings.