Cricket: England enter least promising arena for revival: Atherton questions the attitude of some players and looks for greater commitment from dispirited tourists in the fourth Test, which starts today

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The Independent Online
There are still two weeks and two Test matches in which to salvage something from the wreckage, but England may be too badly drained to respond. The island paradise bit tends to lose its appeal when you are getting totally stuffed, and in terms of remaining focused on the job England are now in closer mental touch with the snug bar at the Plough and Firkin than the dressing-room at the Kensington Oval.

Even for a side less dispirited than this lot, the task facing England when the fourth Test match gets under way here this morning is the rough equivalent of attempting to scale the walls of the most impregnable castle in the West Indies with a toothpick and a ball of string.

The last time England won here, the last time any visiting side won here come to that, was in January 1935. George V was on the throne, Ramsay MacDonald was at No 10 and, perhaps more significantly, Wally Hammond was at No 3. At the moment, No 3 is where England's tail begins, and when you have been 0 for 1 in four of your last six innings, that is not a particularly encouraging state of affairs.

It is being neither too pessimistic nor too cynical to suggest that England's best chance of ending this tour on a high note rather depends on whether the West Indies, with the series already won, have mentally clocked off the job in an even bigger way than the opposition.

However, history suggests that they are not averse to kicking a man when he is down, and history also suggests that - quite apart from the desire to inflict a 5-0 whitewash - the West Indies rouse themselves in Barbados like no other venue in the Caribbean.

Not only have they not been beaten here for nearly 60 years (in the first Test ever played on the ground) and not only have they won their last 12 consecutive Tests at the Kensington Oval, but it is also the venue which brings out their most unshakeable resolve.

In the 1988 Test against Pakistan, they were being spun to defeat by Abdul Qadir until Jeffrey Dujon and Winston Benjamin, with an unbroken ninth-wicket stand of 61, snatched a victory that so unhinged Qadir that he planted a right hook on a mocking home spectator, and ended up in Bridgetown magistrates court the following morning.

In the 1992 Test, South Africa, requiring 71 runs to win from their last eight wickets, lost the lot for 25 to the familiar partnership of Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh, and it was Ambrose who wrecked England with five wickets in five overs here in 1990 when the match was inside the final hour and apparently drawn.

The batsman who came closest to saving England on that occasion (11 hours at the crease for 103 runs and once out) was Robin Smith, but Smith, who has always functioned better in England than overseas (respective averages 52 and 33) is now not functioning at all.

In his last three series for England, Smith has scored 146 runs at 24.33 (v India), 286 runs at 28.30 (v Australia) and is currently hobbling along with 122 runs at 20.33. Whether or not he is finding it hard to cope with the responsibility of senior batsman is hard to say, but despite getting his chin strap torn off by Walsh on the last England tour here, fast bowling has always been his forte rather than his hang-up.

The same cannot be said of Graeme Hick, and it is a measure of how hamstrung England's selectors found themselves when they met yesterday that Hick's place was not in serious doubt despite having his nerve ends cruelly exposed by Ambrose in his last Test innings in Trinidad. The fact that he also dropped two simple slip catches at a vital stage suggests that the combination of Hick and pressure may be uncomfortably related to rabbits and car headlights.

The strain is also seeping through to the captain, even though Michael Atherton says it is not, but public utterance and private thought are rarely one and the same in the kind of circumstances prevailing here. When Atherton said, 'I would like to think we can win one of the last two Tests', it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that the bit he left unsaid was, 'I'd like to think so, but I can't'. Atherton described Grenada as a 'crap performance' and for the first time questioned the attitude of the players supposed to be pushing for a Test place. 'One or two individuals seemed to be more concerned about their own problems on tour rather than attempting to save the (Grenada) game for England,' he said.

This being in his mind, there was little chance of wholesale upheaval here, especially with Devon Malcolm still short of match fitness, and once it had been decided not to muck Alec Stewart around by asking him to keep wicket, the only strong debate last night was over the spinning position - Phil Tufnell edging out Ian Salisbury from the 11 beaten on Trinidad. Ladbrokes presumably took less time over their own debate (England or the West Indies?) and anyone fancying an away win can dip in at 12-1.

ENGLAND: M A Atherton (capt), A J Stewart, M R Ramprakash, R A Smith, G A Hick, G P Thorpe, R C Russell (wkt), C C Lewis, A R Caddick, A R C Fraser, P C R Tufnell.