Ambrose sparkles

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The Independent Online

The packed crowd at sunny Lord's yesterday witnessed an innings of a quality they are unlikely to be lucky enough to see again this season, and an opening spell of fast bowling as incisive as any they can expect in the forthcoming Test series.

With the pitch still fresh from the effects of the early morning rain, Michael Atherton had to contend with Curtly Ambrose at his most enthusiastic. The England captain somehow survived the beanpole Antiguan's first six overs, by dint of application, common sense and several slices of luck to develop a century as good as any played against the West Indies in the abbreviated form of the game.

Ambrose charged in from the pavilion end as he has not done since a shoulder injury obliged him to take a four-month break late last year. A smile crossed a face that had been stern and unhappy for the past three months and his eyes visibly sparkled as the ball bounced and moved away sharply.

For 27 testing deliveries Atherton could not score. If a dozen deliveries did not pass his probing bat, none did. Off Ambrose's 25th ball every West Indian within close proximity reckoned the England captain had snaked a catch to the wicketkeeper, but umpire Mervyn Kitchen did not agree. On such fractions of an inch have so many great performances been built and, as the conditions eased under the influence of the sun and Ambrose took his obligatory rest, Atherton took control.

Only in a one-day game can one individual performance determine the outcome and Atherton's decidedly did. He is obviously full of confidence at present and the West Indies, who already have a healthy respect for his ability, were further convinced that his will be the vital wicket come the Test series.

They would not be altogether disappointed by the defeat, for Ambrose's gradual, but unmistakable return to full effectiveness has been an enormous boost to their spirit. The luck has not run his way so far but inevitably will do so. There were signs as well that the captain, Richie Richardson, is slowly refinding his touch and he and his management will remind their charges that England won the Texaco Trophy on the two preceding tours as well, in 1988 and 1991, but the Tests proved a completely different matter.

What these three matches have proved is that the teams are very evenly balanced. It suggests an enthralling series.