Cricket: England ambition limited to survival

Sixth Test: Rain brings some respite from suspect surface but Atherton and Butcher succumb late in the day to fearsome Ambrose
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The Independent Online
England 35-2 v West Indies

ENGLAND'S hopes of levelling this series developed into a race against time at the new look Recreation Ground here yesterday. Put into bat on an unaceptably damp pitch, improving as it dried, they lost two wickets in the final 12 overs of play after heavy showers had washed out most of the afternoon's play.

With heavy rain falling during and just after lunch, and some fairly chaotic mopping up to boot, it was not until 4.46pm that play was able to continue. Even then only seven balls were possible before another downpour sent the players scurrying back to the pavilion.

It was not the end of the matter, however, and with the sun now blazing they were forced to return, with damaging consequences, as first Mike Atherton and then Mark Butcher were dismissed by Ambrose in the same over.

Having top-edged Walsh perilously close to Ambrose in the previous over, it was clear, despite the pitch's continuing improvement, that the England captain had decided to play his shots. Unfortunately for him the full length ball he chose to drive swung wider and it ended in the hands of Dinanath Ramnarine at gully. Three balls later Butcher joined him, a loose slash bringing about a juggling catch from Brian Lara at first slip.

With showers arriving from the South-east, it did not take much for the lush new outfield to become sodden, and acres of sand and sawdust were later used to make play possible. However, when the day began, it was the watered pitch that caused consternation.

Losing the toss, for the third time in a row since Trinidad, it was Atherton who had first chance to bat on virgin territory. Indeed, it took just one ball, the first of the innings from Courtney Walsh, to indicate what might lie in store for those wielding the willow. It was only a loosener, but the hardness of the ball meant that the damp surface of the pitch was pushed up as if it were Plasticine, and the ball reared over Atherton's head. The next ball, fuller, also gripped and pushed up the top, but the batsman was able to smother it.

Two untesting balls, both played to gully, were then followed by one every bit as lethal as those that had rained down during the brief session of the First Test at Sabina Park, which was abandoned well before lunch. Kicking viciously from just short of a length, it struck Atherton on the left wrist as he tried to prevent it hitting him.

As it had done in Jamaica, the blow heralded the arrival of Wayne Morton, the team physiotherapist, to dispense more comfort and cold spray. He was greeted by another shower came that delayed the completion of the opening over by another hour. Morton was soon in action again following the restart at 11.25am, this time tending to Alec Stewart after the Surrey man was struck under the heart by a wicked lifter from Curtly Ambrose. It was a nasty blow and Stewart, who had earlier gloved a throat ball from the fast bowler to the fine leg boundary, lay prone at the crease for several minutes.

Somehow, despite the presence of Ambrose and Walsh, the pair negotiated their way to lunch, their path eased by a couple of missed chances; Atherton when he edged Walsh between Lara and Junior Murray, and Stewart when he squirted Ambrose low to Shivnarine Chanderpaul's left at gully.

For a while runs off legitimate strokes appeared to be a foreign component in a game of body blows and crabbed defensive strokes. Perhaps mindful of the embarrassing events in his homeland, Walsh, a proud Jamaican, never got out of second gear. He also kept the ball well up, a gesture that cost him four runs when Atherton drove a half-volley back past him to the long-on fence. At the other end, there were no such compromises and Ambrose was his usual threatening self as England groped for survival and lunch, which they took at 25 without loss - a minor triumph.

The pitch, newly relaid and never played on before, was apparently watered the day before the start. New pitches are unknown quantities and the groundsman must have been nervous of it breaking up to soak it quite as thoroughly as he did.

After the precedent set by the umpires in Jamaica, there would have been some nervous men among those sporting West Indies Cricket Board neckties. If the pitch does spoil this final Test, it will be a shame for the stadium here, with over pounds 4.25m invested, now looks a picture. Yet if the umpires were right to call the game at the beginning of the series off, they were also right to carry on here, and the pitch did appear to improve as it dried.

Many, of course, will wonder what all the fuss was about and the surface responded just as the old "Sticky-tops" of yore used to when pitches were uncovered and open to the elements. But if there are still many about who feel that batting on uncovered pitches is the only cricket that counts, England's captain is probably not among them.

St John's

scoreboard

First day; West Indies won toss

ENGLAND - First innings

*M A Atherton c Ramnarine

b Ambrose 13

A J Stewart not out 18

M A Butcher c Lara b Ambrose 0

D W Headley not out 0

Extras (nb2 2

Total (for 2, 21.3 overs) 35

To bat: N Hussain, G P Thorpe, M R Ramprakash, R C Russell, A R Caddick, A R C Fraser, P C R Tufnell.

Fall: 1-27, 2-27.

Bowling: Walsh 10-2-22-0; Ambrose 9-3-10-0 (nb2); Ramnarine 1.3-1-0-0; Hooper 1-1-0-0 (all one spell).

Progress: First day: Rain delayed start until 10.20am. Rain stopped play 10.25-11.24am at 0-0 (Atherton 0, Stewart 0) 0.5 overs. Lunch 25- 0 (Atherton 13, Stewart 10) 11 overs.

WEST INDIES: C B Lambert, P A Wallace, *B C Lara, S Chanderpaul, C L Hooper, R I C Holder, J R Murray, C E L Ambrose, F A Rose, D Ramnarine, C A Walsh.

Umpires: S A Bucknor (WI) and C J Mitchley (SA)

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