Cricket: Ambrose casts shadow as Atherton ponders tactics

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The Independent Online
The pitch again presents Michael Atherton with a conundrum as the England captain prepares for the second Test against West Indies, which starts today.

Derek Pringle reports from Port of Spain, Trinidad.

Calypso is the singing journalism of Trinidad and as topical as any newspaper. With the next two Tests about to be played back to back on Brian Lara's home turf, the lyrics all predict defeat for England. Carnival may be the spectacle Port of Spain is famous for, but for the moment cricket is the hot topic and in the music shops that line Prince and Frederick Street, the rhymes were about Michael Atherton's team "getting a good lickin'," on a pitch "that will be kickin'."

They may not be far wrong, either. After the fiasco at Sabina Park, the 22-yard strip where the essential business of the game is conducted, has been under the kind of scrutiny normally reserved for flesh-eating bugs. But if Sabina, with its cracks and corrugations was obviously sub-standard, this one, well covered with lush green grass, is also raising a few eyebrows.

When grass is left on Test pitches it is usually dead and rolled well into the surface. Here it is live and although the pitch will receive another mowing before play starts this morning, it will still do more than a passable imitation of the verdant Trent Bridge carpet that Richard Hadlee and Clive Rice reigned supreme on in 1981, when Nottinghamshire won the County Championship.

Normally, the captain winning the toss would not hesitate to bowl first. However, that decision will be compounded by the groundsman's action of covering the pitch during the day, a practice normally used to keep moisture in the surface. England did the same thing last summer in order to try to negate Shane Warne. But although England have no one of his calibre, lack of recent rain has clearly made the authorities nervous of the pitch's durability.

All of which suggests that both the amount of grass as well as the covering to keep the sun off, are designed to bind it together. If the game goes the distance, the side batting last will not want to chase more than 150.

For that reason, winning the toss could be a poison chalice. If you insert the opposition and do not bowl them out for under 180, any advantage will be turned on its head if the pitch starts to break up, which is what mostly tends to happen in the Caribbean.

It is this uncertainty that is preventing the England captain from replacing Phil Tufnell with Ashley Cowan immediately. However, the Essex paceman will surely play alongside Caddick, Fraser and Headley should Atherton decide that England's best chances lie in bowling first - which, if the pitch is not given a close shave this morning, they ought to do.

If the surface presents a tricky dilemma, there must be concerns too about England's lack of preparation. Amazingly, the tourists are into their second month on tour, and so far only 13 players have been to the middle. For cricketers used to playing almost every day at home, such inactivity is disorientating and frustrating, and many are clearly still feeling their way.

"It's true that we've been here without playing much meaningful cricket," said Atherton, at yesterday's press conference. With one false start already, the main problem has been to keep focused and Atherton admitted: "Everyone was itching to get the series started."

The same could be said of Lara, his opposite number, captaining the West Indies for the first time in front of his home crowd. "It is very special and significant to play with your home crowd behind you, especially with the series still level," he said. "I'll definitely be looking to produce something special with my bat and with the captaincy."

With Jack Russell, barring any last-minute stomach upsets, set to win his 50th Test cap and bolster the middle order, John Crawley will return to the No 3 role briefly occupied by Mark Butcher in Kingston. On current form, Crawley has yet to look settled. It is the one obvious weakness England have, and one that may expose them should they have to bat first.

England have not won here since Tony Greig's off-spinners bowled them to victory 24 years ago. Since then, batsmen have always had to work hard for their runs at the Queen's Park Oval and the effectiveness of England's top order will surely be compromised by the fact that this is one of Curtly Ambrose's favourites grounds.

Four years ago, England began the final innings of the game needing 194, and were slight favourites to win. At the end of the day's play 15 overs later, England were 40 for 8, laid to waste by the beanpole Antiguan, who bowled one of the heroic spells of all time, as England, eventually all out for 46, succeeded in avoiding their lowest Test score of all time by just two runs.

It was a spell that began with the removal of Atherton first ball. He may not be a street poet like the great calypsonians downtown, but in the sounding-off that often accompanies Test matches, Ambrose, usually a secretive man, is being ominously chatty about his duels with the England captain.

"England need a foundation and that often comes from Athers. If you can knock the chief down, it might make the job a bit tougher for those to come."

When asked why he tended to bowl well at the Queen's Park Oval, he lapsed back into reticence, saying: "I won't be taking anything for granted. You have to prove yourself day in and day out." On this grassy pitch, England will not be unhappy if he decides to delay it a few days.