Atherton senses early optimism

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CRICKET

MARTIN JOHNSON

reports from Headingley

The alarm clock goes off on the main event of the cricketing summer at Headingley today, and if England adopt their traditional approach, they will silence it with a well-aimed pillow, bury themselves deeper beneath the duvet, and crawl blearily out of bed at the series' equivalent of tea time.

England, as their captain is only too aware, have developed the not very bright habit of competing in a Test series only when they are effectively out of it. They won in Adelaide last winter when the Ashes had long gone, in Barbados the previous winter when they were three down with two to play, at The Oval in 1993 when they were already trailing 4-0 to Australia and, at The Oval last summer, their victory over South Africa constituted a late equaliser rather than a winner. Sometimes, as in India in 1992/93, they never come back at all.

It is a rare event for a side losing the opening Test match to win a series, so, even with five Tests still to come, England will be well aware of the importance of this particular game. If they are still looking for directions when the third Test comes around, the reply will be the same reply as for the apocryphal motorist in Ireland. "I wouldn't start from here if I were you."

Sadly, England are as adept at squandering a lead as conceding one. The last time they won their opening match was on this ground, against the same opposition, four years ago, and they still failed to win the series. However, the 2-2 draw did at least constitute their best result in a major series anywhere since 1985, and this particular West Indian side appears a good deal less equipped than that one to recover an early deficit.

If there are grounds for optimism, then there is no ground quite like Headingley for feeling optimistic. Or at least that used to be the case when the ball darted around both sideways and at varying heights, but only in England could they stumble upon a surface best suited to their own bowlers, and then decide to take a bulldozer to it.

After victories here in 1991 and 1992, England have since lost and drawn on a new surface while the old pitch, back in use today, was relaid. This prompted Graham Gooch to lament: "Blimey. We win twice in a row on a pitch and then they go and dig it up. Why? You'd better ask the TCCB."

Gooch's brilliance in carrying his bat for 154 won England the game here against the West Indies in 1991, but when Australia won by an innings two years later, Headingley was where Gooch turned in his captain's badge.

Twelve months further on, Gooch's successor arrived at Headingley fresh from the dirt in the pocket affair at Lord's, and made 99. It was the innings which illustrated that (whatever he might keep in his trousers) a forensic examination of the substances behind Michael Atherton's breast pocket would reveal a substantial amount of steel.

It was, by contrast, the propensity of his team to display the resilience of an ice cube when the heat was turned up which prompted his impassioned plea for an investment in youth last winter, but whenever England are invited to march boldly into the future, they tend to respond by travelling about as far as the end of their nose.

Unless you subscribe to the theory that Atherton sits quietly in the corner at selection meetings, jumping into action only when Raymond Illingworth wants someone to stir his coffee, then one has to assume that Atherton's fingerprints are also on an England team which appears to have been picked with a sell-by date of next Monday.

Robin Smith has been invited to open, Alec Stewart's return to the wicketkeeping/lower- order position was not so much an invitation as a press-ganging, while Richard Illingworth (whose appearance at the nets yesterday scotched all lingering rumours that the R Illingworth in question is in fact Raymond) has apparently been chosen on the basis that he is a "good old pro."

A cricket ball delivered by Illingworth has rarely been in danger of expiring from oxygen starvation in the rarified atmospheres of high altitude, but this again may be an indication of a not altogether unwise England plan. Whatever card games West Indian batsmen play when it rains, patience is presumably not among them, and boring them to death is very often a successful tactic.

It is also a worry to the West Indies that their captain, Richie Richardson, has scarcely been in the middle long enough to get bored, and while it is too much to expect that the tourists will not clock up at least one telephone number total somewhere along the line, they currently appear to be dangerously over-dependent on Brian Lara.

It is also too much to expect that England's batsmen will all walk out in floppy hats and spend the entire summer hooking West Indian medium pacers out of the ground, but so far only Courtney Walsh has looked capable of providing the kind of sustained nastiness for which West Indian attacks are reknowned. Curtly Ambrose has not found his rhythm (one wicket on tour in 72 overs); Ian Bishop is still feeling his way back after years of back problems, while in certain parts of the Caribbean, a touch unkindly perhaps, Winston and Kenneth are known as the Benjamin sisters.

The relaid pitch is forecast to favour the batsmen, although there is enough moisture in it to make insertion a serious option for whoever wins the toss this morning. Atherton thinks that the key to bowling the opposition out twice here will be "discipline", which suggests that Devon Malcolm's involvement will end shortly after this morning's fielding practice.

ENGLAND (from): M A Atherton (capt), R A Smith, G A Hick, G P Thorpe, A J Stewart (wkt), M R Ramprakash, P A J DeFreitas, D Gough, P J Martin, R K Illingworth, D E Malcolm, A R C Fraser.

WEST INDIES (probable): C L Hooper, S L Campbell, B C Lara, R B Richardson (capt), J C Adams, K L T Arthurton, J R Murray (wkt), W K M Benjamin, I R Bishop, C E L Ambrose, C A Walsh.

Umpires: H D Bird (Eng), S Venkataraghavan (India).

Illingworth in mood, page 38

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