Cricket: Back-up from a back seat

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The Independent Online
ENGLAND took a calculated tactical gamble on the morning of the Fourth Test here in Guyana. It meant that for the first time since Headingley last summer I was out of the side. Of course, nobody wants to be omitted, but the management were at pains to make it clear their thinking was purely strategic and I was not being dropped because of form.

I accepted that, though naturally I was disappointed. The pitch was dry, and probably going to get drier, and the decision was made to play just two seamers along with two spinners. Historical precedent is that has not always worked for England but the selectors had to go along with what they thought was right for this match with the series so delicately poised.

In the event the ploy fell into early difficulties. Ideally, given the make-up of the side, we needed to win the toss. But equally Mike Atherton had won all three so far and while there is numerically a 50-50 chance each time you go out to flip the coin, he might have been due to lose one. He did - and we were bowling.

It always looked as though it might be a longish day in the field. But two early wickets gave us abundant hope to think that things may just tilt our way, despite having to bat fourth on a pitch which was by now not just dry but looked as though it might come to resemble the Oklahoma dust bowl by some time early next week. Then, with the two left- handers Brian Lara and Shivnarine Chanderpaul not yet fully settled, the latter offered a chance to Alec Stewart at second slip. Stewie has held on to many more brilliant efforts but this time the ball did not quite stick. So often this seems to have happened to England.

Lara and Chanderpaul went on to take advantage. Lara especially played some quite wonderful shots. Those of us in the touring party who were not playing shared the 12th-man duties and while the shots were at times gorgeous it did not make it any easier to watch. The temperature and humidity were perhaps the worst so far on the tour. My heart went out to both Gus Fraser and Dean Headley, because I know how they must have suffered in the heat. Just breathing somehow seemed extremely difficult.

So much, we all thought to ourselves, for the adage that as soon as you stick a stump in the ground in Guyana the heavens open. It has not rained here for six months, maybe more, and the El Nino effect seems set to ensure that even the playing of cricket will not produce any water. As I watched the play I thought maybe there was some scope for a third seamer, but the feeling is that the ball will turn. It did in the warm-up match here when Robert Croft took plenty of wickets. To some extent I know I have got only myself to blame for not being in the team here. I took eight wickets in the last Test and I have not bowled badly, but I came out here as the No 1 strike bowler and I know I have not done myself full justice. There is no point in dwelling on this. We're all in it together, and the strategy was the one that the team leadership decided on.

It has given me a little insight into how the other fast bowlers in the party have coped. The itinerary for this trip, which has allowed few games between the Tests, means that both Chris Silverwood and Ashley Cowan have hardly bowled a ball in anger. But they have stayed resolute and happy and have shown themselves by their attitude to be important members of the squad. "Spoons" is extremely relaxed in his approach and "Ash" has never let things get him down. It must be difficult for a cricketer not to be doing regularly what he is expected to do - play cricket. But they are young and they know this is all part of the learning procedure.

Not that it was easy for any of us after day one. At least, we managed to nobble Lara before what looked like an inevitable century. Graham Thorpe's deceptively straightforward catch at extra cover - the ball was travelling at somewhere approaching the speed of light - ended Lara's innings at 93. Not that respite was immediate and Carl Hooper's second shot seemed to sum things up. He did no more than chip a six straight. It was so nonchalant.

Runs have always tended to come more quickly at the Bourda than other grounds. The outfield is quick and the boundaries are much shorter.

We know we have a long struggle ahead. We may have to bat for two days, but that is Test cricket. It is a long haul but it is a long way from being an impossible one. This series is still definitely in the balance.