Cricket: England attempt to catch the tiger cold: Spin the key bowling question for first Test while doubt about Fraser's fitness delays the announcement of Atherton's side

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ONE month and five matches ago, you would have got short odds against the words 'unbeaten' and 'England' appearing in the same sentence, and there is even more of a swagger in the step after the result of Wednesday's first serious brush with the enemy. However, England are now about to discover whether the rare scent of blood in their nostrils turns out to be the dangerous odour of a far from fatally wounded tiger.

History shows that you either catch the West Indies cold, or you don't catch them at all. For all the Caribbean sunshine, they occasionally begin a Test series like a second- hand banger on full choke on a frosty morning; then they end it as a runaway steamroller that turns the opposition into the shape of an LP cover.

It was here at Sabina Park four years ago that England opened the series with a nine-wicket victory that was scarcely less of a surprise than a Skegness beach donkey winning the Derby. This time, largely because the West Indies have haemorrhaged more world-class players in the interim than any other side would be able to cope with, the odds are considerably narrower, but England will be well aware that no team beats this opposition coming from behind.

In 1990, the tour sponsors, Tetley, offered a six-figure bonus for England winning the series, an apparently free piece of publicity which came close enough to them having to fork out, that the figure they announced yesterday had to be trimmed back, with traditional Yorkshire canniness, to pounds 50,000.

One of the major reasons for England collapsing in the home straight last time was the fact that their most inspirational batsman, Graham Gooch (who is here for this game as a radio and television summariser), missed the last two Tests with a broken thumb, and their most influential bowler, Angus Fraser, was also unavailable with a rib injury.

Fraser is still considered important enough for the doubts about his fitness to be largely responsible for England delaying their team announcement until this morning. The hairline fractures that Fraser sustained to his left index finger a week ago would not prevent him bowling, but another blow on it would risk losing him for the rest of the tour.

Fraser's absence would clearly be a blow, despite the fact that Middlesex's amiable giant is not yet the bowler he was before the hip problem that kept him out of action for two and a half years. However, if Andrew Caddick has recovered from shin soreness, Mike Atherton will at least have the consolation of being able to call on his best bowler on tour so far.

However, the key bowling question today is whether or not to play a spinner. Atherton has been determined to play one in the opening Test ever since he was sitting on the tarmac at Gatwick, but the indications yesterday were that the captain was becoming more and more like one of those 12th-storey suicide cases starting to get a bit twitchy about leaping off the window ledge.

The last time an England spinner decided a Test in the Caribbean was 20 years ago, when Tony Greig's off- breaks brought him 13 for 156 in Port of Spain, and while the selection of Phil Tufnell and Ian Salisbury was made on the basis that this particular opposition is vulnerable to the ball turning away from the right-hander, England now find that in Carl Hooper's absence, the West Indies have three men in the top six who will be batting the other way round.

Furthermore, a look at the pitch yesterday suggested that it might play as it did here four years ago, when England's seamers did the damage through increasingly erratic bounce. As in 1990, the surface is almost bald, ebony-coloured, and highly polished - not dissimilar, in fact, to the top of Chris Lewis's head.

Lewis's latest period in the doghouse was, as it usually is, a brief one, and if England play four seamers here he will have opportunity number goodness-knows-what to convince England that the player first cast as Ian Botham's replacement Superman does not have a permanent hole in his tights.

If England have been seduced by Wednesday's performance, when Lewis took three wickets via two played-ons and a half-volley drilled to gully, then it would not be the first time they have been conned by a one- day international statistic.

Happily, the one definite fact last night was that they will not be playing a one-day wicketkeeper. Unless he falls on a banana skin this morning (and he eats enough bananas for it to be a possibility) Jack Russell will be back in the side after a run of 12 Tests with either Stewart or Richard Blakey behind the stumps.

England have the individual ability to give the West Indies a contest, but in recent years have had what Allan Border last summer described as a deficit in 'mental toughness'. Whether Atherton has instilled this into his team, the next five days will go some way towards finding out.

(Photograph omitted)