Cricket: Incentive high for hopefuls

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The Independent Online
IF THERE is a place designed to test the mettle of England's cricketers mid-way through their tour it is the next fortnight in Georgetown. A city built almost entirely of wood, it sits on the mouth of the mighty Essequibo river, a place where frontier meets backwater and the stuff coming out of your tap is the colour of tea.

The combination does not prevent the people here from dreaming about cricket, and although the place has done for one or two illustrious careers - Craig McDermott, the Australian fast bowler, ended his career when he twisted his ankle while jogging along the sea wall - others such as Mark Ramprakash, whose father comes from these parts, will be looking to restart theirs.

Over the next three days, England, who will play all those not involved in the last Test, take on Guyana at the Everest Cricket Club. While Angus Fraser and Dean Headley take a well deserved rest - as does Graham Thorpe who has flu - there will be fierce competition, especially among those who have yet to play a match, to catch the selectorial eye.

Depending on the pitch expected at the Bourda, where the fourth Test starts on Friday, the places most under pressure are at No 3 and 6 in the batting order, though a second spinner may also be an option.

However, with Mark Butcher having taken his 11th-hour opportunity in the previous Test, it is John Crawley, the man in possession, who faces the sternest challenge from Ramprakash, though Adam Hollioake, providing his back has recovered, will also be in the shake-up.

Since his debut in 1992, Ramprakash's Test career has been a series of false starts and disappointments, a fact his average of 17.2 indicates. Yet even when he plays well, as he did in the thrilling win against Australia at The Oval five months ago, fate always seem to conspire against him.

"I must admit, I came here expecting to start in the Test team," said Ramprakash, an assumption that appeared to be backed up when two of the selectors Mike Gatting and Graham Gooch, phoned earlier in the tour to enquire why Crawley had been preferred.

Ironically, in view of Butcher's subsequent role, he would probably have played instead of the Surrey man in the last Test, had flu not struck him down the night before.

Frustration, particularly on this level, was not something the young Ramprakash would approach with equanimity. But if the responsibilities of fatherhood and the Middlesex captaincy have helped ameliorate his fiery disposition, the temptation to be gung-ho about the next few days must still be fairly strong?

"You could look at this as your big chance," said Ramprakash, who scored a century in the corresponding fixture four years ago. "But that would be putting too much pressure on yourself. It's my first competitive match since September, so I'm not expecting too much, just to spend some time at the crease."

Pressure or not, the pitch at Everest looks a far better surface than any of the Test pitches England have so far encountered. But if that perhaps offers a degree of unreality, the fact that 80 per cent of the overs in these first-class matches is bowled by spinners, as opposed to about 10 per cent or less in the Tests, means that runs here will not be worth their usual value as a currency of comparison.

Apart from that, the opposition, who will be captained in Carl Hooper's absence by Shivnarine Chanderpaul, is strong, and contains the fast bowler Reon King, a previous acquaintance from the West Indies A match earlier in the tour, as well as the prolific left-hand opening batsman Clayton Lambert.

If England are dwelling over who might bat at No 3, calls in several local newspapers for the inclusion of the 36-year old Lambert to replace Stuart Williams in the Test team, reveals the serious lack of batting depth currently afflicting West Indies cricket.

A stalwart for Guyana, Lambert played his only Test match against England in 1991, when he was one of Phil Tufnell's six victims in the first innings. If, like Ramprakash, he still has aspirations of adding to his tally of caps, it is a mistake he will not be wanting to repeat over the next couple of days.