Cricket: England face trial on pitch cut by rivers of cracks

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The Independent Online
Today hostilities commence between England and the West Indies on what looks to be an extremely sporty cricket pitch. Derek Pringle, in Kingston, assesses what that might mean to England's chances of winning the first Test at Sabina Park.

It may be something in the balmy sea breezes, but there has rarely been an occasion, even when the West Indies were at their fearsome best, that England have not begun a tour of the Caribbean with a large dose of optimism.

Unfortunately, it rarely lasts much beyond the first Test and if Michael Atherton's side have serious aspirations of winning this five-match series they must prepare for all-out assault and not lose here. It is one thing to come to Kingston in hope, but quite another to leave one Test down.

But, I hear you cry, surely England are playing a spent side riven with dissent. True, the West Indies may be having problems and the 3-0 loss they incurred recently in Pakistan will have dented morale. And yet if there is anything more certain of curing the malaise afflicting players like Curtly Ambrose, it will be the sight of Atherton and Alec Stewart walking out to bat together at Sabina Park.

Four years ago here, the pair managed to put on 121 together in the first innings, and England still managed to lose the match by eight wickets. The old invincibility of the West Indies may be obsolete, but they remain a potent and unpredictable force, particularly at this ground where, since 1930, they have lost five out of 32 Tests.

Famous for its mirror-like sheen, the pitch here has long been an object of fascination. Last time, Atherton claimed he had seen nothing like it and when somebody jokingly asked the groundsman, Charles Joseph, when he last cut the grassless batsman's paradise, he memorably claimed that the only thing that got cut round there was his hair.

Since then, however, the square has been relaid with a yellowish clay which has not yet had time to properly settle and produce the pristine shiny patina of old. Instead, the surface is corrugated, which is sure to provide some interesting variations in bounce and pace. It is also fragmented by rivers of cracks, which will further test a batsman's reflexes as they widen under a drying sun.

Privately, Atherton was again admitting he had not seen anything like it, though his public utterance on the subject - that "runs would be at a premium" - was a model of understatement.

Normally, most teams would look to bat first if they won the toss, though the West Indies do tend to have a habit of putting in their opponents. Either way, the pitch is unlikely to get better, and unless the weather intervenes, or the bowlers on both sides pussyfoot about, this match will do well to go the distance. Over the next few days, Sabina is likely to be anything but a park for batsmen.

England, however, are in theory better equipped than they were last time round, and eight of today's side have toured here before. The continuity is not quite as seamless as it appears and two of those veterans, Angus Fraser and Jack Russell - who plays his 50th Test - have not been seen in England colours for 24 and 12 months respectively.

"That experience is important," Atherton said. "Last time players like Graham Thorpe and Nasser Hussain didn't have a Test record behind them. They do now and they have confidence in their abilities to score runs against the best attacks."

Only the No 6 spot is unconfirmed, though Adam Hollioake has got more than a foot in the door. England will wait until this morning to see if his shoulder has suffered any ill-effects from yesterday's practice session. If he fails to make it, Mark Butcher and Mark Ramprakash are next in line.

If the pitch does play as poorly as it looks, England are unlikely to need Hollioake's bowling and Atherton may be tempted simply to play him as a batsman. But although that move will place more of a burden on Phil Tufnell to do the stock bowling, Atherton will be looking for a concerted performance from his pace bowlers, particularly Andy Caddick, whose performance against West Indies A was disappointing.

Dean Headley will also be under pressure. The emotion of playing in front of his grandfather's people could distract as well as inspire him and Atherton must keep a watchful eye on his opening bowler, who must stick to line and length.

On the other hand, the batsmen may have to chance their arm and it may well be those who are least intimidated by the conditions who come off best.

For once though, it may prove to be equally intimidating for the home captain and Brian Lara will not relish leading out his side in front of a volatile Jamaican crowd, still smarting at the demotion of their hero, Courtney Walsh. What England must do is prevent that wound healing by winning, or at least not getting beaten. On this pitch that may take up a whole series worth of good fortune.

WEST INDIES (from): B C Lara (capt), D Williams (wkt), S C Williams, S L Campbell, S Chanderpaul, C L Hooper, J C Adams, I R Bishop, C E L Ambrose, C A Walsh, F A Rose, M Dillon, N A M McLean.

ENGLAND (probable 13): M A Atherton (capt), R C Russell (wkt), A J Stewart, J P Crawley, N Hussain, G P Thorpe, A J Hollioake, A R Caddick, D W Headley, A R C Fraser, P C R Tufnell, M R Ramprakash, M A Butcher.