Cricket: Croft has rare turn of fortune

England's off-spinner makes an early impression while batsmen wait for their opening

GUYANA may be in the grip of a drought, but that was good news for Robert Croft, whose response to the El Nino-driven weather patterns was to take 6 for 50, a feat almost unthinkable in the Caribbean, where off-spinners are virtually extinct.

Bowling far better than he did a fortnight ago against Trinidad and Tobago at Guaracara Park, Croft's performance will certainly have caught his captain's eye. Even if the likelihood of England playing two spinners in the Test next week is slight, Croft has proved that he is at least a viable alternative to Phil Tufnell, who has so far been too keen to resort to negative tactics.

Croft, who started this tour as England's second spinner, has not bowled nearly as much as he would have liked - something you take for granted when you are playing county cricket day in and day out. The strong sea breeze would have reminded him of Swansea - probably the only other first- class ground as close to the sea - and he quickly settled to cause the batsman problems with his dip, drift and occasional sharp turn. Only Shivnarine Chanderpaul, who as captain of Guyana, won the toss and batted, had any success in taking him on, and the slight left-hander twice lofted him for boundaries. Others, like Travis Dowlin tried, but perished in the attempt.

It all looked rather different in the morning, when England, hampered by a strong onshore breeze, looked destined for a long day in the field. Chris Silverwood, had other ideas however. He shrugged off the disappointment of seeing Nicholas de Groot caught off a no-ball in the seventh over and struck with his next ball, which Clayton Lambert edged to Michael Atherton at first slip.

Lambert's dismissal for four would have caused massive local disappointment. Over the last few days the 36-year old opener has received more column inches than the failing watermelon crop, which in these parts is the news that counts. The breakthrough, however, did not herald more wickets for either of the opening bowlers, who after the opening salvo were rotated for a while from the Sea Wall End.

Instead it was Croft, settling in for a long bowl upwind who took the next wicket when he had Keith Semple lbw, playing back to a drifter that skidded through off. After lunch, he proved nigh on unstoppable as he forced the teenaged prodigy Ramnaresh Sarwan to play on, and de Groot to glove a sweep shot to Jack Russell. Chanderpaul held fast against Croft's testing and teasing until a lapse of concentration on the stroke of tea saw him edge Adam Hollioake to Russell.

As the day wore on and Tufnell gave more than a passable imitation of a man who would rather be sipping cocktails by the pool - a wicket later perked him up - Croft went on his merry way. Tossing the ball up into the breeze, he first lured Neil McGarrell into lofting his drive to Mark Ramprakash at mid-on, before removing Mohindra Naganmootoo, with a quicker drifter that the batsman tried to cut.

With his brother gone, Vishal, who had been dropped early by Atherton, cut loose. Chancing his arm against the spinners, the all-rounder scored a remarkable half-century, as he and Colin Stuart added 49, the highest partnership of the day. In the end it needed Silverwood to end the irritation, which he did by bowling Naganmootoo for 55.

England, as their fine performance here suggests, are taking their preparations far more seriously these days, which means involving an ever burgeoning army of experts. Dean Riddle, the team's fitness consultant, has just been on a two-day fact-finding trip to the LA Dodgers' training camp near Miami, called Dodgertown. Apparently, Riddle's mission has been to learn new fielding drills, with particular emphasis on the motivation used by players when practising them.

How this all dovetails with the work of Stephen Bull, the team's sports psychologist out here is unclear, though Bull was undoubtedly having his work cut out when he was spotted having a lengthy chat with Andrew Caddick - probably the man most in need of his services - at square leg. Later Bull, a Dorset schoolboy cricketer and a member of Devizes Cricket Club, donned his whites to field as 12th man, while Nasser Hussain received treatment for a sore ankle.

Meanwhile, the serious business is around the corner, with the fourth Test starting at the Bourda on Friday. A week is a long time in which to pre-judge a Test pitch in the Caribbean, and so talk of playing two spinners is probably a little premature. Indeed, if anything, the performances of John Crawley, Mark Ramprakash and Adam Hollioake here are likely to be analysed more closely.

However, unless the wicket-keeper becomes an issue once more - and it is the easiest way of playing the extra bowler - it looks like a three- way race for the No 6 spot. And with England hoping, if not expecting, not to bat more than once in the game - they are currently nine without loss - any slip-ups in the first innings could prove costly.

Scoreboard

Guyana won toss

GUYANA - First Innings

C B Lambert c Atherton b Silverwood 4

N A de Groot c Russell b Croft 31

K F Semple lbw b Croft 19

R Sarwan b Croft 10

*S Chanderpaul c Russell b Hollioake 26

T Dowin c Cowan b Croft 1

N C McGarrell c Ramprakash b Croft 8

V Naganmootoo b Silverwood 55

M V Naganmootoo c Russell b Croft 0

R D King c Atherton b Tufnell 0

C E L Stuart not out 11

Extras (b9w1 nb9) 19

Total (87.2 overs) 184

Fall: 1-24 2-50 3-67 4-84 5-91 6-114 7-118 8-122 9-135.

Bowling: Cowan 10-3-18-0; Silverwood 15.2-1-45-2; Butcher 4-2-7-0; Tufnell 19-5-42-1; Croft 33-14-50-6; Ramprakash 1-1-0-0; Hollioake 5-1-13-1.

ENGLAND - First Innings

*M A Atherton not out 0

M A Butcher not out 7

Extras (w2) 2

Total (for 0, 2 overs) 9

To bat: J P Crawley, M R Ramprakash, N Hussain, A J Hollioake, R C Russell, R D B Croft, A P Cowan, C E W Silverwood, P C R Tufnell.

Bowling (to date): King 1-0-7-0; Stuart 1-0-2-0.

Umpires: P Monfort and E Hinds.

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