Cork typifies English malaise

Stephen Fay sees a home hero banished from the action by a virus
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The Independent Online
THE players knew exactly how high the stakes were. "Tomorrow's going to decide," Courtney Walsh said on Friday evening. Jack Russell felt that England were in the box seats. Walsh thought that if the West Indies came into today's play batting strongly, anything could happen. Russell talked of the ebb and flow of a good game of cricket, and yesterday England experienced more ebb than flow.

The state of the tide could be judged from the varying fortunes of Our Hero (Dominic Cork, 23 wickets at 22.43 in the series before the Oval) and Their Hero (Brian Lara, 586 runs at 73.25 in the first five Tests).

You could title it A Tale of Ten Fours: Lara got 10 of them in his first 50, which came in only 72 balls. Cork conceded 10 fours in his nine overs, and left the field shortly after lunch after an unproductive second spell.

When play began, it was not certain whether Cork would bowl at all. As he came off the ground after the morning practice session, spectators at the gate asked whether he was fit to play. Cork grimaced.

On Friday he had strained a groin muscle. When the team began to jog round the ground yesterday morning, Cork took his customary place at the head of the file. After 50 yards, however, he faded to the back of it. During bowling practice he discreetly felt his thigh at the end of his follow through.

When he came on the field, he was still drawing attention to his thigh. But after an hour he was stretching his arms, ready to bowl. If he had got wickets again, he must appear in the next honours list. The Prime Minister, who was watching, would have seen to it.

In his second over Cork had the nightwatchman, Kenny Benjamin, caught at third slip, and he began to run in a lot faster after that. But he bowled short of a length outside Lara's off- stump, and at the end of his first six over spell, he had conceded 32 runs for that one wicket; 16 more came in his short, second spell.

The image of Cork that stayed in the mind yesterday was of him putting his hands in his pockets and standing disconsolately after Lara had hit him for another four. Only after he left the field did we learn that it was not the groin that was causing him difficulty at all. Cork's problem was a viral infection.

Lara's resolution had been clear on Friday evening. When the crowds had gone, he ran a solitary lap of the Oval before batting for half an hour in a net. (Rajindra Dhanraj did the bowling.) Yesterday morning, Lara was back in the nets, giving the Surrey Colts a treat. (Not everyone was impressed; a technician sat within 10 yards of the great man watching a game of tennis on a television monitor.) We know what Lara was doing. The jargon tells us so: Lara was getting focused.

Lara batted as though he had had a tip that fate was on his side, and not Cork's. He would have been run out before lunch if Mike Watkinson's throw had hit the stumps, and he played and missed, especially at Devon Malcolm, in such a flamboyant manner that he looked like a man who has quite forgotten what it is to be vulnerable.

The inevitable century ticked up after two and a half hours, with the second 50 taking a mere 51 balls. As Lara raised both arms to the crowd, Cork was still a spectator, and England had vacated the box seats.