Cricket: Atherton anxious to restore morale: Inexperience of tourists' squad threatens disaster as West Indies prepare for further one-day assaults

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The Independent Online
IF, into each life, a little rain must fall, Mike Atherton may be about to discover whether he requires nothing more than an umbrella, or if he ought to take up carpentry and start building an ark.

The boy, as he is both in terms of looks and the England captaincy, is currently standing on a warm rather than a burning deck, but as many of his predecessors have discovered, a trip to the Caribbean is an even harder test of your inner steel than an Ashes tour.

Four years ago, Graham Gooch's side came here, and for a time did better than anyone, Gooch included most probably, could dared have hope. However, just when his team were giving a passable impression of one of those touristy rum punch cruises around the bay, the boat alongside hauled up the Jolly Roger, and Gooch's men suddenly found bits of buckshot in their glasses rather than twists of lemon.

On the face of it, three consecutive defeats by the West Indies does not represent a complete crisis, and Atherton always knew that his strategy of building a new side around youth was not without its potential pitfalls.

However, it would be a surprise if he is not now reflecting on the dissenting voices who regarded this tour, above all others, as the one more suited to battle-hardened troops with a cluster of war medals than a school outing.

One of them was Robin Smith, who raised at least one eyebrow at the absence of a Lamb or a Gower in the original tour party, and with Smith himself failing to function thus far, Atherton will have to convince himself of the long-term wisdom of going for youth, and somehow get hold of a dressing-room starting to haemorrhage a tour's most priceless commodity, morale.

The captain, despite his boyish smile, affable nature, and a determination not to go down the jankers road of dealing with failure, is already showing understandable signs of fraying nerve-ends. When he examines his hand-picked crew, and one or two of his decisions, he might also be questioning - at least privately - his own judgement.

Defeat in a one-day international, however ghastly, is not in itself a reason to talk about the potential falling-apart of an entire tour, but England's performance (if such it can be called) in the third of these games, in St Vincent, may be symptomatic of something more than one bad day at the office.

England are now here preparing for the fourth and fifth matches over the weekend, and Atherton was not guilty of understatement when he said: 'If we play like we did in St Vincent, we'll get wiped off the park.'

The players themselves are depressed at the loss of Devon Malcolm, not least because of Malcolm's popularity, and the fact that - despite occasional signs of Angus Fraser looking more like his old self in St Vincent, and excusing Ian Salisbury on the grounds that he cannot get a game - not one of the remaining bowlers is now functioning at an acceptable international level.

Neither have England helped themselves since the serious cricket began. Atherton's decision to select Chris Lewis for the first Test, for example, flew directly in the face of the available evidence, and Lewis's lethargic performances out here have, almost without exception, been the subject of barely disguised disgust among his team-mates.

It was fair enough for Atherton to say that England's bowling in St Vincent was so awful that 'it didn't make much difference what I did with the toss', but, on the other hand, it made precious little sense to bat last on a pitch that lived up to its pre-match billing of becoming increasingly slower and unpredictable in bounce.

Atherton then came up with the ill-conceived idea of opening the batting with Lewis, who has barely managed to get the ball off the square so far on tour. It was promoted as a statement of positive intent, but if ever there was a case of requiring the captain to lead from the front, this was it.

Keith Fletcher, the team manager, is trying (with limited success) to put on his brave face at the moment - 'this a young side, and hopefully they'll learn from their mistakes' - but both Fletcher and Atherton know that any further erosion of belief in Trinidad this weekend could well prove irretrievable.

Cronje's warning, page 39

(Photograph omitted)

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