by Tony Cozier
IT was to have been Antigua's big day. Instead, the opening day of the final Test yesterday turned out to be a fitful, frustrating nightmare, only partially revived by the late drama of two England wickets and a missed catch.
It was the day on which they would show off to the doubting world the magnificent verdant, new state-of-the-art outfield at the Antigua Recreation Ground (ARG) and its imposing new stands, presenting proof that size is no constraint on ingenuity and commitment.
It was the day they would conclusively get their own back on all those who condemned it, on the evidence of what were the excavated mud flats of January, as unsuitable for this final Test.
Instead, the occasion was embarrassingly spoil-ed by the kind of chaos that has for so long been the blight of West Indies cricket.
Only 21.3 overs and an hour-and-a-half's play were possible, broken into four periods, because of rain showers that swept across the ground throughout the day.
Their frequency was compounded by the protracted and laborious process of shifting the expansive covers on and off the ground, by the antiquated method of removing the surface water with pieces of sponge, and by carelessness that turned a large section on the edge of the square into mud from spillage, necessitating a further wait.
In addition, the new motorised ``water-hog'', purchased recently by the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) precisely for such an eventuality, malfunctioned and could only briefly be used. It was fixed by an engineer from TWI television but only appeared fleetingly.
The pitch also refuted predictions by Andy Roberts and others that it would be slow and even in bounce.
For some inexplicable reason, it was again unsatisfactorily damp, as it was for the Sri Lanka Test last year, so that Brian Lara chose to bowl on it after winning the toss.
England, 2-1 down in the series and in a must-win situation, would be more inconvenienced by the reduction and the forecast for today is not encouraging for them.
The start was delayed by ten minutes after which the regular squalls interrupted play for an hour after five balls and prevented any cricket between lunch and quarter to five.
By then, captain Mike Atherton and Alec Stewart had battled through 11 difficult overs against Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh to have 25 on the board.
Atherton took a blow on the forearm from Walsh's fourth ball even prior to the first interruption and, on the restart, snicked the same bowler so close to Junior Murray's right that the reinstated wicket-keeper should have made the catch. He was wrong-footed and let it through, not an auspicious return.
At the opposite end, Stewart's first scoring stroke was a gloved leg-side deflection for four off Ambrose who then thudded a vertical lifter directly into his chest, just above his heart.
The two would have gone to the interval with memories of Sabina Park's mayhem, so unpredictable was the ball bouncing. But there was no pace and they had time to drop or slacken wrists to avoid eager close fielders.
Further rain allowed only seven balls when play finally got under way for the third time but, as the skies cleared again and the umpires ordered another 11.5 overs, a crowd that had had been kept entertained by Chickie's Disco were enlivened by another spirited Antiguan.
Ambrose, charging in from the northern end with Chickie's posse at his back, took two wickets from three balls to leave England unsteady and nightwatchman Dean Headley hanging on with Stewart when stumps were finally pulled on the disrupted day.
Atherton went into his favoured square-drive against Ambrose's first ball of the extended session and sliced it wide and low of gully's right. Dinanath Ramnarine, a specialist in the position for Trinidad and Tobago, was there to clasp a stunning catch.
Two balls later, the left-handed Mark Butcher, who had waited all day through the breaks for his chance to get in, essayed an extravagant backfoot stroke through the off-side and Lara, as has become his unintentional habit, gathered in the catch at second grab.
England's day of misery would have been complete had Shivnarine Chanderpaul, at third slip, been able to cling on to Stewart's uncertain edge off the forever unlucky Walsh. Stewart was 16 at the time but the catch was difficult.
As it is, England now have to make the running to secure the victory that would square the series for them. Lara and the West Indies won't mind the rain.
Day 2: LICKS LIKE PEAS
by Tony Cozier
PHILO WALLACE and Clayton Lambert, who have quickly become the demolition squad the West Indies team has lacked for so long, detonated more of their explosives under shell-shocked bowlers on the second afternoon of the final Test here yesterday.
In just over two hours, they virtually destroyed England's chances of squaring a series they had arrived in January optimistic of winning.
With another breathtaking exhibition of power hitting, they compounded the wreckage created earlier by their bowlers and hammered their way to within a run of England's meagre 127 on their own.
Their forthright attack, identical to those they had launched in the previous drawn Test in Barbados when they were first brought together by desperate selectors, defused the supposed devil in the pitch and rendered irrelevant the slowness of the well-grassed outfield.
Once more, their strokes were clean and, if extraordinary and often aerial, completely orthodox.
Wallace was the more ruthless and assured, thumping a remarkable hook for six in front of square-leg off Andy Caddick and ten fours with all the might of his muscular shoulders and forearms. He hurried to 50 from 51 balls and was unbeaten 67 from 82 balls when England were spared further punishment by fading light with 12 overs still scheduled.
The left-handed Lambert was fortunate to survive a straightforward gully catch to England captain Mike Atherton off Angus Fraser when six and another finger-tip effort to the leaping Phil Tufnell at mid-off off Andy Caddick. But, like Wallace, he spared nothing loose, stepping out to hoist left-arm spinner Phil Tufnell for a straight six and counting seven fours in 41 off 89 balls.
England had taken 70.5 overs over their runs, managing a mere nine fours. The West Indian swashbucklers have been in for 27 overs and counted two sixes and 17 fours between them.
England were already a dispirited, if not defeated, bunch when they took the field after folding to the varied West Indies bowling for the lowest total in the 13 Tests hosted by the Antigua Recreation Ground. The effect Wallace and Lambert had on them in their partnerships of 72 and 82 in Barbados was immediately evident as a long-off was set from the first ball for Wallace and the field was scattered to uncharted positions for them both.
Wallace announced his mood and form with a sizzling cover drive off Fraser from his first ball that scorched even Miami's lush imported grass on its way to the boundary.
It was a prelude to entertainment that kept the expanded ARG, packed to near its 12 000 capacity, in a state of high excitement.
Chicki's Disco that often has to compensate for the boredom of dull play was now merely an accompaniment to the festivities in the middle.
It had not witnessed the likes of it since the heyday of their own ``Master Blaster'', the great Viv Richards, himself watching with nodding satisfaction from behind the BBC Radio microphones.
Wallace cut and pulled and drove with complete certainty, his runs evenly divided between such strokes. When he defended, his bat was straight, his head still, his wrists slack. After Barbados, he now looks a genuine Test opening batsman. Lambert, with his ugly, crab-like stance, is not as stylishly pleasing as Wallace. He has his limitations and plays within them but they do not inhibit his exuberance.
The two have been a revelation after the prolonged search for an opening pair. This was only the third time in the 58 Tests since Gordon Greenidge's exit in 1991 that the first wicket has put on more than 100, a revealing statistic.
England's crisis was already deep by the time the two started their blitz. They were undone as much by the clever and probing leg-spin of Dinanath Ramnarine, who claimed four wickets in his second Test, as the accustomed pace of Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh, backed by the returning Franklyn Rose.
Resuming at 35 for two after the rain-interrupted first day, they never settled once more rain clouds cleared and play got properly underway after a delay of 25 minutes and breaks between light showers that took up another half-hour.
In the hour's play available before lunch, they lost the nightwatchman, Dean Headley, and, most significantly, Alec Stewart.
Headley edged Ambrose to first slip and Stewart was bowled by a beauty from Rose that cut back to find the gap between bat and pad as he drove.The ball struck the middle stump with a satisfying sound as Rose, back where he should have been before now, raised his hands in triumph. He had only nine overs but they were all impressive.
On resumption, Ramnarine exposed the left-handed Graham Thorpe's vulnerability to spin, turning a leg-break back into him for umpire Cyril Mitchley's lbw decision.
For the next hour, the hero of Kensington, Mark Ramprakash, and Nasser Hussain steadied things for England with the highest partnership of the innings (39), but three wickets in the space of ten balls without a run scored dramatically ended the resistance.
Hussain's liking for the sweep against Ramnarine's turn always courted danger with a short fine-leg and deep backward square-leg posted.
Inevitably, there was the top-edge and the catch lobbed 15 yards to the left of short fine-leg where Roland Holder somehow suspended himself in midair while executing the perfect swan-dive and grabbing the chance two-handed.
Jack Russell, even shakier against spin than Thorpe, prodded his second ball off bat and pad to short-leg and, at the opposite end, Ramprakash slapped one of Walsh's worst deliveries of the series, a wide, rank long-hop, straight to cover.
Day 3: Dateline: Monday-March-23-1998 ------ Barbados----Sports
WI TURN SCREW by Tony Cozier
BRIAN LARA and Carl Hooper provided the polished power, Clayton Lambert the tenacity and England the inefficiency as the West Indies tightened their stranglehold on the final Test here yesterday.
While Lambert rode his luck and battled with his nerves to compile the hundred he was so long denied the chance of scoring, Lara and Hooper gathered their runs in their familiar classical styles much as they pleased.
Both came agonisingly close to joining Lambert on three figures, as did Lambert's forthright opening partner, Philo Wallace.
Wallace's first blemish in an outstanding innings was his last, bowled by Dean Headley off the inside edge 55 minutes into the day, eight short of a thoroughly deserving maiden Test hundred.
Lara stroked a six and 12 fours, all expertly executed, in scoring 89 off 94 balls and Hooper matched his captain's brilliance with an unbeaten 85 off 102 balls, with 13 boundaries, as England wilted in the final session.
Such personal disappointments were minor irritants but did not alter the widely uneven balance of the contest. In any case, Hooper is only 15 short of completing his ninth Test hundred this morning.
The scoring momentum was maintained throughout, the rate always hovering around four runs an over as the West Indies ruthlessly lifted their total to 451 for five by the time Roland Holder drilled a return catch to Andy Caddick's last ball of the day.
There were three century partnerships Ð 167 between Wallace and Lambert, 133 between Lambert and Lara and 127 between Hooper and Holder as England, disappointed and dejected, went through the motions on a pitch now dry and batsman-friendly.
Not since the 548 for seven declared they amassed against New Zealand's threadbare bowling, also at the Antigua Recreation Ground two years and 20 Tests ago, have the West Indies reached such dizzy heights.
It left England an overwhelming 324 behind with the daunting challenge of batting through most of the last two days to salvage a draw and some pride out of a match they needed to win just to level the series.
Their flawed catching, shoddy fielding and uninspired bowling were indicative of a team that has lost the heart for a fight.
Lambert, already the beneficiary of chances the previous afternoon at nine and 15, had two more, both off England's best bowler on the day, Dean Headley, along the way to his treasured landmark. He was put down by Alec Stewart at second slip when 56, a low but comfortable offering, and at 56 as Mark Butcher let his face-high pull burst through his hands at midwicket.
Twice, he would have been run out by direct hits and became so tense in the 90s that he was twice within a couple of inches of falling short. At 95, his miscued pull off Caddick just eluded Angus Fraser's clutches at mid-on; at 96, his chancy second run to third man off Headley gave him an agonising wait that seemed an eternity while the TV replays showed his bat sliding across the crease a whisker before wicket-keeper Jack Russell broke the stumps on Caddick's throw.
Minutes later, the heavy-set left-hander nudged Headley past backward point for the single that compensated for all the frustration of the 6 1/2 years in the wilderness to which a succession of selection panels had sentenced him between Tests.
If this was not a flawless innings, and certainly not the best he has ever played, it was the most important.
Few sportsmen get a second chance at 36, fewer still make the most of it.
For all his ungainly stance and technical unorthodoxy, Lambert possesses three significant assets: patience, concentration and an appreciation of his own limitations.
All were in evidence throughout the six hours, five minutes, and 232 balls he was in occupation before he edged Mark Ramprakash's gentle off-break
Day 4: Fight On For Victory In Final Test
by Tony Cozier
THE West Indies still have a fight on their hands in their quest for the victory in the final Test they need to conclusively establish their superiority in a series they have already secured.
Brian Lara's declaration at 500 for seven after an hour on the fourth day allowed his bowlers 5 1/2 sessions to complete the job.
When Curtly Ambrose made his customary breakthrough in England's second innings, despatching the beleaguered captain Mike Atherton and Mark Butcher for his second nought of the match in successive overs soon after lunch, another collapse by a dispirited team appeared likely.
The reality was different.
The pitch, now dry and even in pace and bounce, had favourably accommodated the West Indies batsmen for the better part of two days and England's found it to their liking as well.
Their assignment was different, survival rather than aggression, and they lost only one further wicket before close.
It happened to be Alec Stewart, who confirmed his status as their most accomplished batsmen with an authoritative 79.
But Nasser Hussain and the left-handed Graham Thorpe battled stubbornly, if not always convincingly, through the last hour and 35 minutes to sustain their hopes of a morale-boosting draw.
For a rapid-fire hour and 25 minutes after tea, Lara relied on the combined spin of Carl Hooper and Dinanath Ramnarine to make the breakthrough that would virtually seal the issue.
In that time, they sent down an improbable 28 overs, wheeling away to four or five team-mates clustered around within touching distance of the two defensive batsmen.
Not since Lance Gibbs and Inshan Ali went through their stuff in Australia 22 years ago has the West Indies team known anything like it.
In the third over, Hooper found the inside edge of Stewart's crooked bat and the catch rebounded from his pad to Philo Wallace's large right hand at silly point.
There was repeated encouragement for both Hooper's off-breaks and the leg-breaks and googlies of Ramnarine, and Hussain and Thorpe had several close calls. But none was close enough.
Neither was certain against Ramnarine's each-way turn and Hooper seemed to be bowling an iron ball. Pads were struck and edges passed and once Thorpe cut Hooper just wide of slip with the stroke that had cost him his wicket twice already in the series.
At one point, the pair went 25 minutes and 35 balls without scoring but the pitch was sluggish and their concentration never lapsed.
The West Indies once more must now look to the formidable figure of Ambrose and his veteran colleague, Courtney Walsh, for a breakthrough with the second ball that is due after one over this morning.
They are two wickets away from a vulnerable tail and remain favourites, but they know they have to work hard for their success.
Had Lara chosen, he might have closed with his overnight lead of 324 that would have left him two full days to complete the job.
He elected to continue for another hour, allowing Hooper to score the 15 runs he needed to pass his ninth Test hundred and the total to reach the healthy round figure of 500.
Junior Murray rifled a catch to mid-off from Dean Headley and Franklyn Rose was lbw to Andy Caddick before Hooper hooked his Kent county team-mate Headley for his 16th four to move from 99 to three figures.
He joined Clayton Lambert as the second century-maker, the first time since Roy Fredericks and Clive Lloyd made theirs against Australia at Perth in the 1975-76 series that a pair of Guyanese had achieved the landmark in the same innings.
There was time enough for Ambrose to heave a mighty blow that deposited a ball from Angus Fraser into the bottom tier of the new Richie Richardson Stand at long-on before Lara's closure.
Hooper had needed only 15 balls for his unbeaten 108, an innings studded with 17 typically elegant boundaries.
By lunch, the West Indies should have had an early and vital wicket but Stewart, hooking at an especially quick and well-directed bouncer from Rose, conned umpire Cyril Mitchley by immediately clutching his shirt-sleeve on the appeal for a catch by wicket-keeper Murray. The TV replay revealed the ball had taken the bat's edge.
It was a snide gesture but it seemed immaterial when Ambrose pinned Atherton on the backfoot for Mitchley's lbw verdict in one over and then induced the left-handed Butcher's outside edge from a ball, delivered from round the wicket, that left him on pitching.
It was the 16th time in their several meetings over the years ö and the sixth time in the series ö that Atherton had fallen to Ambrose.
It was Atherton's 30th birthday but he left the ground with the look of a man going to a funeral ö his own.
His hold on the captaincy has been tenuous for some time. Now, after a series that his team has failed to win and with a personal average in the teens, it has probably become untenable.
The two wickets fell during a period of intuitive and imaginative captaincy by Lara.
After a single over from the pavilion end, he switched Ambrose who removed Atherton with his first ball from the southern, Factory Road, end and Butcher with his eighth.
Throughout the second session, before settling on his two spinners in the last, he kept England's batsmen ö and possibly his bowlers as well ö guessing, making ten bowling changes as he constantly rotated his five bowlers.
Just before tea, Ramnarine tempted Stewart, then 70, into a lofted drive that only the beanpole Ambrose of those on the field could have reached. Leaping high at mid-off, he could not make the finger-tip catch.
It was an error that was not costly but, once Stewart went seven runs later, Hussain and Thorpe hung on.
Day 5: West Indies Cast Spell On England For Superb Test Victory
ST. JOHN'S You had to see it to believe it.
It was sensational. It was spectacular. It was the West Indies back to their magical best.
England dramatically collapsed after a fourth-wicket stand of 168 between Nasser Hussain and Graham Thorpe, to lose the final Test against West Indies by an innings and 52 runs yesterday.
When it was all over, Mike Atherton announced he was stepping down as England captain.
``It's time for someone else to lead the side,'' he said. ``After much consideration and after discussions with the chairman of selectors, David Graveney, I have decided to step down as England captain with immediate effect.''
Atherton, who turned 30 on Monday, led England on 52 occasions after taking up the post in the summer of 1993 against Australia. The Lancashire batsman won 13 matches, lost 19 and drew 20.
He will still play in the One-Day series, for which Adam Hollioake will be skipper.
It all went wrong for England in the final session yesterday afternoon when they appeared to be coasting to a draw. The senseless run-out of Hussain soon after he had completed his first century against West Indies started the slide.
England's last seven wickets went down for only 26 runs, four of them to a fired up Courtney Walsh, to give West Indies a comprehensive 3-1 series win.
Thorpe called Hussain for a single that was never on, and as both players hesitated, Hussain was left stranded. He made 106.
When Mark Ramprakash was bowled by leg-spinner Dinanath Ramnarine five runs later for nought, the alarm bell began ringing for England.
Ramnarine also despatched Dean Headley; but it was the old warhorse Walsh who put the England tail to flight.
After trapping Jack Russell leg before, Walsh wrapped up the innings with three wickets in eight balls. He is now within one wicket of Malcolm Marshall's record West Indies Test haul of 376 victims.
West Indies captain Brian Lara admitted that before the run-out, he had expected England to force a draw.
Said a glum Atherton: ``With Hussain and Thorpe playing so well together, we thought we had a good chance of saving the game; but West Indies are always capable of this sort of thing.
``A combination of our failure to win this series and my own form, which has been well below my previous standards, has led me to believe it is time for someone else to do the job,'' he said.