THREATENED by a bombscare, Michael Atherton's 50th Test as England captain was becoming memorable for all the wrong reasons yesterday. Gambling on just two spinners and two pace bowlers, he watched his opposite number, Brian Lara, score a brilliant 93 followed by an unbeaten century from Shivnarine Chanderpaul, which saw the West Indies into a commanding position at the end of the first day's play.
For Chanderpaul, the joy of scoring a 100 on home turf, the first by a Guyanese here since Clive Lloyd in 1973, was overshadowed by the pitch invasion that followed. With over 100 people celebrating the occasion by jumping and dancing on the fragile pitch, it took several mintues before normal service was resumed.
But if Chanderpual, twice reprieved by Alec Stewart at second slip off Angus Fraser was fortunate, Lara was scintillating. For a man who scores his Test centuries every 8.5 innings, Lara, who last scored a hundred in June some 11 innings ago, must have felt he was also overdue. That he failed once more, albeit narrowly, was due to a brilliant diving catch by Graham Thorpe at extra cover.
Before that Lara had looked to be back close to his best, a situation that now looks ominous for the rest of the series.
Starting carefully, as an archeologist might on a prehistoric dig, he grew bolder by the minute, eventually treating the England bowlers, not as precious relics, but as a child might a favourite plaything.
Striking the ball cleanly and with tremendous power, the West Indies captain dismissed the England bowlers after lunch with the airy disdain of a dictator swishing his flywhisk.
With the morning bombscare proving nothing more than a hoax, the afternoon was filled with explosions, albeit ones coming from the middle of Lara's bat and not a crank's chemistry set.
Whether it was pace or spin, over the wicket or around, Lara found the perfect riposte. Beginning his assault with a mighty six off Robert Croft, he later pulled Dean Headley, England's best bowler here, for another high over mid-wicket as his confidence finally became re-united with his instincts.
Even Angus Fraser, the Trinidadian's nemesis in the previous two Tests, had no answers as his impeccable length and line were suddenly treated like a help yourself buffet on a pitch ominously beginning to crumble.
With Lara supreme and Chanderpaul, a growing menace, England's good work in the morning - when they had West Indies 38 for 2 - suddenly evaporated.
Coming to the crease before Carl Hooper, who later announced himself with a third-ball six straight back over Phil Tufnell's head, Chanderpaul was the perfect foil to his captain. With only one century to his name in his previous 27 Tests, he is something of an underachiever, a tag that England have now altered.
Considering that Headley had twice been warned by the umpire Steve Bucknor for running on the wicket within the first hour, England's bowling performance before lunch was excellent and on another day they could have had their opponents four wickets down. Mind you, having lost the toss, Atherton could probably have done with Andy Caddick, whose extra bounce may well have proved more useful than Tufnell's spin, which by the time the pitch turns may well be superfluous anyway.
Nevertheless, the two official warnings - three and a bowler is banned for the rest of the innings - was not the start Atherton would have wanted with just two frontline seam bowlers in his side. But if his brow was creased with concern, especially after Headley had received a second warning, it was tempered by the early wicket of Stuart Williams. Beginning with a crisp cover driven boundary and a top-edge six off Headley, Williams was looking his pugnacious self before Fraser struck.
Persevering with that clinical off-stump line of his, the Middlesex seamer squared the opener up, the edge neatly taken by Graham Thorpe, who wisely kept his beady eyes on the ball, instead of Alec Stewart's hands, which had begun to encroach from next door at second slip.
With the score on 38, Sherwin Campbell, having surviving an early run out chance when Robert Croft, selected in place of Andy Caddick, fumbled at mid-on, edged Headley to Jack Russell. It was nothing less than the Kent paceman deserved, and having won several moral victories over the Barbadian, he finally won through with one that bounced steeply enough to find the edge of Campbell's bat.
It was the last but one wicket that England would take all day, as the green green grass of Trinidad became a faded memory. As Headley and Fraser were rotated from the North Road End, the increasily tell-tale puffs of dust coming from balls breaking the pitch's surface meant that the West Indies, ending play on 271 for 3, are in a strong position.
With conditions unlikely to improve, England will not relish batting on the pitch last, against spin or pace.
Henry Blofeld, Tony Cozier, page 19
First day; West Indies won toss
WEST INDIES - First innings
S L Campbell c Russell b Headley 10
(71 mins, 48 balls, 1 four)
S C Williams c Thorpe b Fraser 13
(31 mins, 20 balls, 1 four)
*B C Lara c Thorpe b Croft 93
S Chanderpaul not out 100
C L Hooper not out 36
Extras (lb5,b4, nb10) 19
Total (for 3, 90 overs, close) 271
Fall: 1-16 (S Williams), 2-38 (Campbell), 3-197 (Lara)
To bat: J C Adams, +D Williams, C E L Ambrose, I R Bishop, D Ramnarine, C A Walsh.
Bowling: Headley 26-6-65-1, Fraser 22-6-55-1, Butcher 3-0-15-0, Croft 26-6-71-1, Tufnell 16-3-56-0.
Progress: First day: 50 in 81 mins, 16.4 overs. Lunch 61-2 (Lara 17, Chanderpaul 11) 27 overs. 100 in 171 mins, 39.5 overs. 150 in 234 mins, 55.2 overs. Tea 151-2 (Lara 64, Chanderpaul 53) 58 overs.
ENGLAND: *M A Atherton, A J Stewart, M R Ramprakash, N Hussain, G P Thorpe, M A Butcher, R C Russell, D W Headley, R D B Croft, A R C Fraser, P C R Tufnell.
Umpires: S A Bucknor and D B Hair TV Replay Umpire: P Montfort Match Referee: B N Jarman.Reuse content