Cricket: England bowlers encourage optimism: Thorpe underpins tourists' push to a first-innings lead and West Indies batsmen struggle to cope under unaccustomed pressure

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West Indies . . . . . . .252 and 143-5

England . . . . . . . . .328

When England were quoted at 12-1 against for the third Test match last Thursday, it seemed that the bookmakers were being unduly cautious rather than attempting to reel in a few mug punters, but for the first time in this series so far, the scenario of the short-trousered wimp being boxed around the ears by the playground bully has startlingly altered.

The words optimism and England rarely crop up in the same sentence nowadays, but, thanks partly to a slice of outrageous luck, they are now no worse than an even money bet to pull the series back to 2-1 down with two to play.

With the West Indies effectively 67 for 4 in the final over of the day, and the match intriguingly poised, Jimmy Adams, pulled a looping full toss from Ian Salisbury fiercely into the forearm of Robin Smith at short leg, and as the ball arced into the air Jack Russell ran from behind the stumps to take the catch that makes England firm favourites going into today's rest day. Smith went for an X-ray but there was no break.

On Saturday, England cleaned up the West Indian tail in only half an hour, thereby avoiding the kind of prolonged winkling-out process that can have such a deflationary effect on the batting. Then, when every run was crucial on a surface becoming increasingly erratic in bounce, England adding 92 for their last five wickets yesterday (34 of them involving the last man, Angus Fraser) would not have been an insignificant factor in the home team's poor second-innings start.

England's batting was largely underpinned by Graham Thorpe, whose retention in the side was a laudable justification of Mike Atherton's jettisoning of the previous policy of casting players off like old socks. Thorpe, selected on long- term promise rather than short-term form, repaid what many thought was misguided faith with an innings of 86, and some of his strokeplay would have been high class even on a pitch less dodgy than this one.

The really important partnership (of 82) came between Thorpe and Jack Russell when England were 167 for 5 and in real danger of a first innings deficit.

England's bottom-order runs were squeezed out in spite of a spell of three wickets in 26 deliveries from Curtly Ambrose, largely because the West Indies' current four-pronged pace attack lacks the patience of their more illustrious predecessors.

England, however, were unlucky in that Lara, who had previously operated at first slip under the personal sponsorship of Teflon, yesterday plucked three out of the air, including that of Thorpe, who was finally undone by Ambrose's extra bounce after four hours at the crease.

The last-wicket partnership between Ian Salisbury and Fraser held up the West Indies for almost an hour, and in one over from Kenneth Benjamin, Salisbury inflicted deep psychological wounds by hitting three boundaries.

When England took a similar first innings lead (89) in the 1990 Test here, the West Indies knocked off the arrears without losing a wicket, but this time they lost three to strokes which underlined their occasional capacity for approaching a backs-to-the-wall operation as though they were on a cruise around the island.

Richie Richardson miscued an airy return drive back to Andrew Caddick, and Lara thumped the same bowler off the back foot to Salisbury at mid-off. Both were fine catches, but they were both careless strokes, as was the one that removed Desmond Haynes with the total on 53. It was a decent delivery from Lewis, but losing his off stump attempting to score runs through square leg was barely worthy of someone with Haynes's Test record.

However, England were well aware of the problems of having to chase too many runs in these conditions, and some of the spring went out of their step when Keith Arthurton survived a difficult stumping chance off Salisbury with the total at 81. Arthurton struck the next ball for a massive six and, with Arthurton and Jimmy Adams taking 31 runs from four overs of Salisbury, the fourth-wicket stand was beginning to assume ominous proportions when, to England's undisguised relief, Arthurton mishooked Caddick to mid-on.

Tony Cozier, Photograph,

S African advantage, page 31