Atherton shows grit as England weather storm

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The Independent Online


reports from Headingley

England 148-4 v West Indies

Batting against the West Indies may no longer be a combination of gritting your teeth and counting how many teeth you have got left to grit but, on yesterday's evidence, reports that the tourists' munitions factory now churns out nothing more lethal than water pistols and cap guns appear to have been prematurely optimistic.

However, the customary scenario of English batsmen heading for the pavilion at regular intervals had more to do with Headingley being attacked by a succession of rain squalls than being blown away by the West Indian pace bowlers, and thanks to another high-class captain's innings from Michael Atherton, England's first day total of 148 for 4 from 46.1 of the scheduled 90 overs was not too disappointing.

Even Atherton's powers of concentration would have been sorely tested by having to rescratch his guard on no less than eight separate occasions - seven after rain interruptions, and one after a six-minute hiatus to dry out a soggy patch on the bowlers' run-up.

It looked for a moment as though Dickie Bird had suffered a recurrence of the burst drain incident against the West Indies here in 1988, when water suddenly began gushing up his trouser leg.

"Don't blame me, I'm not a plumber!" was Dickie's agitated response to one heckling spectator on that occasion, and yesterday he was once again wearing his anguished "Why does it always happen to me?" expression. There is not a drought anywhere in Africa that could not be ended by Bird pulling on his white cap and calling "Play".

England's drought against this opposition, in terms of a winning Test series, stretches back to 1969, when Raymond Illingworth was captain, and while there remains no better reader of a pitch in the country - especially a Headingley pitch - neither Illingworth nor Atherton would have been totally confident about what to do had England won the toss.

Richie Richardson's decision to field may, in fact, have been more negative than positive, given that England's bowlers would probably have exploited yesterday's surface moisture rather better than his own.

The West Indies attack stuck to the two lengths they know best - short and shorter - and while England's batsmen were made to hop around on a pitch with more pace than is normal here, it was the rarer, fuller-length delivery which caused them more problems.

Fortunately for them, the West Indies also dropped three catches, which was understandable enough on a day to persuade even Yorkshiremen to plunge chilled hands deep into their pockets. The electronic scoreboard here has few rivals for dispensing useless information, but yesterday's sunburn warning - "20 to 30 minutes for unprotected skin" - just about took the biscuit.

Curtly Ambrose's first spell did not provide England with much comfort for the rest of the summer, in that Ambrose ran in with a spring-heeled purpose, and was desperately unlucky to finish the day without adding to the one wicket he has so far taken on tour.

The experiment with Robin Smith opening the batting should have gone no further than Ambrose's third over when Smith, on three, was badly dropped by Carl Hooper at second slip.

Smith, though, did not make the most of his good fortune. Having made 16 in a partnerhip of 52 with Atherton, his fondness for the cut did not take into account a ball from Kenneth Benjamin too close to him for safe execution, and this time Richardson clung on to the thick edge.

Benjamin K, somewhat surprisingly preferred to Benjamin W, further justified his selection by getting rid of Graeme Hick, albeit to a not very good delivery. Hick was admirably positive against the sort of bowling that gave him such a harrowing introduction to Test cricket in 1991, but failed to get over a square cut, and Sherwin Campbell held a sharp catch at point.

Richardson then dropped Graham Thorpe (on six) in the slips off a slightly off-key Courtney Walsh - the West Indian captain had previously missed another difficult offering from Atherton (on 34) off Benjamin. The Thorpe drop proved relatively inexpensive, Ian Bishop securing a marginal lbw decision to a ball that nipped back into the left-hander, but Atherton continued to play beautifully until Bishop got him caught behind with one which lifted and left him.

Unlike most English batsmen, Atherton rarely gets out to bad deliveries, and this one was as near to unplayable as makes no difference. It was equally galling for him in that he was out to the final delivery before the eighth (and last) downpour of the day.

County cricket, page 39