Cricket: Atherton may bow to El Nino effect

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The Independent Online
THERE was a solar eclipse here yesterday but it did not obscure the fact that spin is likely to play an important part in today's Test match. But if most eyes were looking upwards for a glimpse of the unusual, those peering down at the parched Bourda pitch saw a far rarer sight in this part of the world - a surface that appears to favour spin over pace.

England, despite the desiccated conditions, are not yet entirely committed to playing two front-line spinners. With Mark Ramprakash replacing John Crawley to bat at No 6 and Mark Butcher sited at No 3, the batting places are settled. Indeed, only one berth remains unresolved and Michael Atherton, set to captain his 50th Test, will have another look at the bone dry pitch this morning before choosing between the off-spin of Robert Croft and the pace of either Dean Headley or Andy Caddick.

Asked if the pitch was a lot drier than the one here four years ago, Atherton replied: "Everywhere's a lot drier. Last time we had a lot of rain before the match" - rain that local sources are saying has been prevented from falling for the last six months by the El Nino effect 4,000 miles west of here in the Pacific Ocean.

Yet if El Nino is providing the right conditions, historically, the policy of playing two specialist spinners has not worked well for England in the Caribbean. Apart from the victory at Port of Spain in 1974 where England played three spinners (incidentally, the last time England won a series here) the last three occasions - the first Test in 1981 and the second and third of the 1986 tour - all resulted in heavy losses.

Atherton, despite his degree in history, prefers lateral to chronological thinking, however, citing Australia and India's recent use of a two pacemen and two spinner Test attack. "There are plenty of precedents, but the conditions have to be right," the England captain said yesterday.

Certainly, going into an important Test with two pace bowlers is not for the faint-hearted, and the pitch will need to turn sooner rather than later, and not go low, if the ploy is not to backfire. Yet Atherton is adamant that it is an option rather than a gamble, despite the small boundaries and fast outfield of the Bourda.

"We have seamers who can bowl long spells and two spinners who bowled well together in tandem during the game against Guyana," claimed Atherton. "They just have to be prepared for a fair bit of work."

Fitness, under their consultant Dean Riddle, will certainly play a role. But if those like Croft, who have not been playing much, will benefit from the extra training, a workhorse like Angus Fraser knows an enormous workload lies ahead, despite the supposed support offered by Ramprakash's off-spin and Butcher's medium pace.

For Ramprakash, the disappointments of being overlooked at the start of the tour have vanished in the space of a single innings. With John Crawley out of touch, Ramprakash knew a decent score in the last match might secure him the Test place he last filled at The Oval in August.

"It's happened very quickly," said the Middlesex captain, whose 77 against Guyana, a superbly crafted innings on a turning pitch, helped win him the nod. "I deliberately didn't want to build up my hopes too much in that match. In fact I feel very relaxed and I want to continue in that vein," he added.

Ramprakash later admitted he had discussed his tendency to "tighten up" during Tests with the team's sports psychologist, Stephen Bull.

"Although it might seem obvious, Stephen has helped me set the whole thing out and I now have a routine of building up to a match that leaves me in a better frame of mind," he said. "Basically, it is about recalling my best innings so that I can relax and enjoy what I'm doing. That's when I play best."

Four years ago Ramprakash was dismissed for scores of two and five as the West Indies' pace barrage wreaked havoc. A repeat may not be out of the question and, while the pitch will offer turn as it wears, the home side's tall fast bowlers could, in the event of low bounce, end up being more effective than either Carl Hooper or the debutant leg-spinner Dinanath Ramnarine, who took five wickets against England for Trinidad three weeks ago.

With Atherton as ambivalent as ever to the milestone awaiting him - he actually considers it his 49th Test, preferring not to count the abandoned game in Jamaica - another should not go unheralded.

Courtney Walsh, who made his Test debut on the 1984/85 tour of Australia, has, undoubtedly, been one of the West Indies' greatest servants. In fact, for a fast bowler to notch up a 100 Tests in this day and age requires resilience and dedication beyond most mortals.

In some ways it fact an even greater feat of survival than Atherton's, whose captaincy needs the momentum of a Test win here if his duck of winning a five-match series is to be broken before the millennium.

ENGLAND (v West Indies, fourth Test, Georgetown, today): From: M A Atherton (capt), A J Stewart, M A Butcher, N Hussain, G P Thorpe, M R Ramprakash, R C Russell (wkt), R D B Croft, A R Caddick, D W Headley, A R C Fraser, P C R Tufnell.

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