Cricket: Atherton hopes net practice will make perfect

Bridgetown Barbados: 472-6 dec England 372-7
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ENGLAND'S three-day game against Barbados meandered on as a pleasant enough exercise in the sun on another lovely Caribbean day. Much of the bowling was done by the spinners and bore little or no resemblance to what we can expect in the fifth Test which begins here on Thursday.

None the less, in general terms, practice in the middle is much more valuable than net practice. This point is in no way made as a tacit criticism of Mike Atherton, who chose to have strenuous nets each day instead of playing against Barbados.

The chairman of the selectors, David Graveney, who arrived in Barbados last weekend, principally to supervise the acclimatisation and practice of the seven players who are coming out from England for the one- day internationals which start at the end of the month, said during the day that Atherton had been talking on the telephone to Graham Gooch. His predecessor will have given Atherton points to work on, in which case net practice can then be more valuable as the precise circumstances of each can be recreated time and again - which cannot, of course, be done in the middle.

Atherton's shortage of runs - he has scored just 96 in his last seven Test innings - is causing more concern than it should be. The first three Tests, four if you include Sabina Park in which he was out for two, were played on bad pitches and against two of the best fast bowlers in the world. Atherton's low scores must be seen in this perspective and his 49 played an important part in helping England to win in Trinidad.

His main problem, which Gooch has surely got him working on, is his method of playing back. Like so many contemporary batsmen, when he plays back there is not much movement back towards the stumps and most of the time he ends up square on to the bowler with his toes pointing down the pitch at mid-off.

Curtly Ambrose has twice had him lbw with balls which have cut back into him and kept low. They are fiendishly difficult to keep out, but if Atherton can move the right foot back further than he does and keep it more parallel to the batting crease it will give him an extra split second and leave him in a better position to adjust. He should also try not to move quite so far across his stumps, for when he does it leaves him stranded when the ball comes back into him.

Fiddling about with techniques can be dangerous in the middle of a Test series but Gooch and Atherton were working together for some time before Christmas. Gooch will now have been trying to determine whether or not Atherton has returned to any of his old bad habits and this obviously concerns the problems he has had on the back foot.

Even if he has not been able to tinker successfully with the mechanism of this stroke, Atherton will find the pitch at Kensington Oval much more to his liking. He made more than 200 runs in the Barbados and Antigua Tests four years ago which helped to make up for a poor start to that series too.

But four years ago England came to the Barbados Test three matches down with the series lost. Now, they are 2-1 down and if Atherton, who says his batting does not feel out of sorts, can again take advantage of the even bounce here, he could play a significant part in helping England get back on level terms.

The four main batsmen on show yesterday against Barbados - Nasser Hussain, Graham Thorpe, Mark Ramprakash and Adam Hollioake - all had useful spells in the middle before getting themselves out to careless strokes. It was a pity that no one went on to make a century, but at least none of the batsmen wasted their chance altogether on a pitch which is now playing more slowly.

FInal day of three; Barbados won toss

BARBADOS - First Innings 472 for 6 dec (R I C Holder 158, P A Wallace 68, R L Hoyte 64, F L Reifer 60).

ENGLAND - First Innings

(Overnight: 178 for 2)

*N Hussain c Griffith b Blagrove 45

G P Thorpe c Hoyte b Gibson 59

M R Ramprakash c sub b Rollock 44

A J Hollioake st Hoyte b Reid 45

R C Russell b Rollock 7

R D B Croft not out 10

A R Caddick not out 0

Extras (b6, lb6, w1, nb18) 31

Total (for 7, 112 overs) 372

Fall (cont): 3-228, 4-286, 5-351, 6-357, 7-371.

To bat: A P Cowan, C E W Silverwood.

Bowling: Gibson 25.4-5-79-1; Collins 16-1-80-1; Blagrove 15-1-67-1; Reid 35.2-9-84-1; Rollock 19-6-48-3; Reifer 1-0-2-0.

Umpires: M Jones and D Holder.