FOR the second time in a week, England were balking over beating the West Indies at the Queen's Park Oval. Needing 225 to win, the visitors appeared to be coasting to victory after a century opening stand between Michael Atherton and Alec Stewart had given them the perfect start.
However, two vital wickets by Courtney Walsh and another by Carl Hooper, as well as several stoppages for rain, meant that England were made to inch their way towards levelling this series. And when bad light eventually halted play, England, who had a close call when Mark Butcher was caught off his forearm, still needed 38 runs to win.
However, it was to Butcher's Surrey team-mate Stewart that the day really belonged. Stewart's knock of 83 was a gem among the grit, and when the smile returns to his captain's face, which it should do some time this morning, he will owe his opening partner an enormous debt.
Stewart, himself, considered his innings to be possibly the most vital of his career. "I wouldn't say it was the best I've ever played but I suppose it was the most vital one in terms of the situation and in the context of what this game means to everyone in our squad," he said.
The weather hardly made things easier, either. After play had been held up for almost two hours in the afternoon, just 19 balls were possible before another shower brought the groundstaff scurrying back with the covers. Even so it was a profitable time for England's batsmen, who scored 11 runs, including a meaty cut for four from Butcher.
With the extra hour available, play resumed at 5.10, by which time Walsh and Curtly Ambrose had a new ball in their hands and one that, judging by Graham Thorpe's late reaction to a bouncer, was becoming increasingly difficult to see in the fading light.
The West Indies have not lost a game on this ground for 21 years since Pakistan beat them here in 1977, a record that following a morning session that was all England suddenly began to look in jeopardy.
Yet as England are acutely aware, particularly the six current players who played in the debacle here four years ago, you allow the West Indies through the front door at your peril.
The main reason this has been a low scoring match is that plenty of batsmen on both sides have given their wickets away with appalling shots and options. But although Atherton, Stewart and Nasser Hussain could do little over their dismissals, the same could not be said of John Crawley, whose foolish run-out brought the West Indies' waning self-belief flooding back with a vengeance.
Before Crawley embarked on his fateful second run, England were 144 for 1. Thirteen overs later they were 168 for 4, with Ambrose and Walsh, as well as the gremlins of Port of Spain, gnawing at their heels. But if rain brought time for England to re-group, it also allowed Walsh and Ambrose to rest while the pitch greened up under the covers.
A few hours earlier, it had all looked very different and with two days to score the 173 runs needed at the start of play, there was no need to rush. The first hour's play yielded 36 runs, most of them to Stewart. However, small totals are sometimes flattered by the cautious approach and the England team and their supporters were grateful when Stewart, after a shaky start, began to pierce the ringed field set by Lara.
The Surrey man is at his best with pace on the ball and he began to cut loose soon after England's first scare of the morning when Atherton, scampering back for a second run, narrowly beat Nixon McLean's superb return from long leg. Next ball, with the England captain on 39, the West Indies should have broken through when Atherton cut Walsh straight to Stuart Williams in the gully, who spilled the chance.
By rights, it should have been the wicket that broke the drought and the drop visibly affected the West Indies' morale.
Even for such experienced campaigners as Walsh and Ambrose resolve has its breaking point, and instead of them perhaps reflecting on their storming performance here four years ago, their tired minds would have begun to wander back to their more recent and less savoury experiences in Karachi and Peshawar. However, perhaps with one last hurrah in mind after lunch, which had been brought forward by a brisk shower, Lara alternated his two senior bowlers an over at a time from the Pavilion End.
It is a ploy that Brian Lara used in Perth last winter in 100C heat while Walsh, the captain, was off the field. Whatever his reasons this time, the gambit worked with Walsh finding the edge of Atherton's bat with a beauty that bounced and left the England captain off the pitch.
Before this innings, Atherton had not passed fifty in his last 12 innings. That number has now risen to 13, though his gritty 49 was worth double that in the circumstances.
With one Manchester Grammar old boy being replaced by another, you would have thought that the cerebral side of chasing this target would have been in good hands.
But pressure can do strange things to the coolest of minds, and with John Crawley playing for glory as well as his place in the next Test, the combination proved lethal, and going for a second run that was never on, he was run out by Kenny Benjamin, who was fielding at extra cover.
Mind you with the television replay's angles blocked by static fielders, the decision, although probably the correct one, was based on guesswork which is what the technology is surely meant to eradicate.
While Stewart remained, however, England were still favourites. But in keeping with this incredible Test match, where the favourites have changed almost by the session, the odds shifted when eight runs later Walsh had the England opener caught behind off a similar ball to the one that had done for his captain earlier.
It was an incredible piece of resilience by Walsh, who four balls before getting Stewart had seen Hooper spill him at slip. To come back so soon after such a disappointment was a testament to the bowler's heart, which as captain, had been broken by this side recently in Pakistan.
But if that brought the home crowd to their feet for the first time, they were up again not long after when Hussain, who having just struck Hooper back over his head for four, was out to a grubber from the same bowler that struck him below the bootlaces.
Only more unkind deliveries like that one, can surely prevent England from going to Guyana with the series all square.
Queen's Park Oval Scoreboard
Fourth day; England won toss
WEST INDIES - First innings 159 (A R C Fraser 5-40, A R Caddick 5-67).
ENGLAND - First innings 145 (C E L Ambrose 5-25).
WEST INDIES - Second innings 210 (J C Adams 53).
ENGLAND - Second innings
*M A Atherton c D Williams b Walsh 49
(234 min, 173 balls, 3 fours)
A J Stewart c D Williams b Walsh 83
(300 min, 245 balls, 8 fours)
J P Crawley run out (Benjamin-D Williams; TV replay) 5
(30 min, 20 balls)
N Hussain lbw b Hooper 5
(63 min, 27 balls, 1 four)
G P Thorpe not out 15
(94 mins, 39 balls, 1 four)
M A Butcher not out 9
(65 mins, 40 balls, 1 four)
Extras (b1 lb10 nb10) 21
Total (for 4, 89 overs) 187
Fall: 1-129 (Atherton); 2-145 (Crawley); 3-152 (Stewart); 4-168 (Hussain).
Bowling (to date): Walsh 29-6-61-2 (nb1) (5-2-12-0 3-2-5-0 3-0-8-0 4- 0-15-0 1-0-2-0 1-0-1-1 1-0-1-0 7-1-10-1 4-1-7-0); Ambrose 23-6-38-0 (nb5) (7-3-16-0 4-0-7-0 3-2-1-0 1-1-0-0 1-0-2-0 1-0-4-0 4-0-5-0 2-0-3-0); Benjamin 11-3-24-0 (nb2) (3-0-5-0 5-3-7-0 3-0-12-0); McLean 4-0-17-0 (nb1) (2-0- 4-0 2-0-13-0); Adams 6-3-5-0 (nb1) (3-2-1-0 2-1-2-0 1-0-2-0); Hooper 16- 3-31-1 (2-0-6-0 9-2-14-0 5-1-11-1).
Progress: Third day: 50: 94 min, 21.4 overs. Bad light stopped play at 5.54pm - close 52-0 (Atherton 30, Stewart 14) 25 overs. Fourth day: 100: 183 min, 43.4 overs. Rain stopped play at 11.58am - lunch taken at 122- 0 (Atherton 47, Stewart 64) 53 overs. 150: 287 min, 69.5 overs. Tea: 170- 4 (Thorpe 9, Butcher 1) 81 overs. RSP 4.50-5.15pm 181-4 (Thorpe 14, Butcher 6) 84.1 overs. New ball taken after 84.3 overs at 181-4. BLSP at 5.38pm.
Stewart's 50: 183 min, 142 balls, 6 fours.
Umpires: D B Hair and E Nicholls.
TV Replay Umpire: C E Cumberbatch.
Match Referee: B N Jarman.