Cricket: England place trust in turn for the better: Rejuvenated tourists fly out full of hope with Atherton likely to use his spinners to test West Indians' patience under pressure

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The Independent Online
BRITISH Airways flight 253 from Gatwick to Antigua tomorrow morning will contain two distinctly different types of tourist - those dreaming of swaying palm trees and hammocks, and those thinking about swaying sideways and stretchers. Not for nothing are England's cricketers up in business class, because however seductive the brochures might look, a cricket tour to the West Indies hardly qualifies as a holiday.

If anyone involved in this tour has thought about packing a hammock, it will probably be the International Cricket Council match referee. While England versus Pakistan represents the short straw in this line of work, the West Indies versus England - in the thorny area of ball-tampering at least - is akin to winning the pools.

When the West Indies are batting, any knock on the ref's door for the perusal of suspiciously scuffed-up leather can swiftly be dismissed as the result of the ball bouncing around in the road outside, while when England are batting, the only known instance of unusual ball damage came on the 1986 tour, when a piece of Mike Gatting's nose had to be dug out of it.

If there is one team with little inclination to explore the murky area of razor-sharp thumbnails and reverse swing, it is the West Indies, who are traditionally less interested in late movement than (in the posthumous sense) late batsmen. At least, this is how an England tour to the West Indies is commonly perceived.

And yet there is a genuine mood of optimism within this England squad, notwithstanding a recent Test record that could not be much worse if they had been picking the first 11 people to wobble out of a sponsored tent, allied to their failure to win a series in the West Indies since 1968, when Gary Sobers came up with the last known instance of a sporting Test match declaration.

So what exactly is it that lies behind England's self-belief? Favourable smog readings over the Caribbean? A Test and County Cricket Board ban on Chinese prawn consumption? Richie Richardson's star sign badly out of alignment with Venus? Or is it just possible that the West Indies are not quite the side they were even on England's last visit when, but for a cruel cloudburst on the final day at Trinidad, the tourists would have gone 2-0 up with two Test matches to play.

Since that 1990 tour, the West Indies have lost Viv Richards, Gordon Greenidge, Malcolm Marshall and Jeffrey Dujon to old age, and Ian Bishop to infirmity. Yet Brian Lara has matured into one of the world's great batsmen and Curtly Ambrose would be first choice with the new ball in any world XI, but Courtney Walsh is now the wrong side of 32, and Richardson can no longer refer to a West Indian captaincy manual that basically runs to one sentence. If the opposition are not all out or retired hurt after your first two fast bowlers are ready for a breather, bring on the next two.

Furthermore, the West Indies' financial impecunity (they almost always lose money on a home series) means that their cricketers are perpetually on the road, and the burn-out factor has already claimed their captain. A 12-month period of seven Tests, 31 one-day internationals, and the attritional nature of an English county season has left Richardson a bit like a man trying to cold-start a Jumbo with a lawnmower battery, and his doctors recently ordered a month's complete rest.

His opposite number, Michael Atherton, is healthily suspicious of any inference that the West Indian players will be something other than at full throttle by the time the international matches come around in mid-February, but privately he will rate England's prospects at the outset of this tour as better than they were when Graham Gooch's team left four years ago. If there have been occasions when England's players were mentally beaten even before clearing the tarmac, this should not be one of them.

Neither is it completely valid to draw a form line through the scorelines of the two sides' most recent series - Australia 1 West Indies 2, and England 0 Australia 4. England were a hangdog lot for most of last summer, and no match for a side as hard-nosed and grindingly professional as Australia, who in turn were within two runs of winning the series against the West Indies in the penultimate Test.

Under Atherton, England have (temporarily at any rate) a rejuvenated outlook and, for all the dross of the past few years, are a team that actually won the last Test they played. They will also know that when this opposition, unlike last summer's, comes under pressure, they have an encouraging propensity for lemming-like behaviour.

More often than not, this is particularly apparent against spinners, in circumstances when a modicum of patience is required. At Sydney, in 1988, Allan Border took 11 wickets more via charitable donation than chiselled extraction, and at The Oval in 1991, Philip Tufnell wreaked similar carnage against batsmen whose solitary game plan appeared to be to try to hit him over the gasometer.

In 1990, England took two specialist spinners in Eddie Hemmings and (tricky quiz question) Keith Medlycott. Neither played a Test, but given that the West Indian batsmen are traditionally unhappy against the ball turning away from the bat, Atherton's initial instincts must be at least to play either Tufnell or Ian Salisbury in this series.

It is also a misconception to believe that West Indian pitches are all bleached white trampolines. England's success at Sabina Park and Port of Spain in 1990 came largely through their traditional virtues of line and length bowling on uneven, two-paced surfaces, while the opposition concentrated, as they usually do, on landing the ball closer to their own toecaps than the batsman's.

For the final two Tests in Barbados and Antigua, England were without their two most important players, Gooch and Fraser, and only an inspired spell from Curtly Ambrose broke them with half an hour's daylight remaining in Barbados. In Antigua they had nothing left to give.

And so, like most of its predecessors, the tour ended up as the equivalent of a World War I offensive under Field Marshal Haig, and the players arrived back home with enough battered fingers to qualify for a sponsorship deal from Bird's Eye. However, they were still remarkably close to an eyeball-popping result.

If there are worrying aspects about this squad, they lie in the make-up of the batting (only one specialist opener and the nagging doubt about where to bat Graeme Hick) and the fitness of the bowlers. Three months is a long time to guarantee that Alan Igglesden, Angus Fraser and Chris Lewis will register more ticks than crosses in the attendance register.

However, if England can stay relatively injury-free, and assuming that a couple more Ambroses do not suddenly drop off the West Indian conveyor belt, then as dreams go, this one need not necessarily belong to the pipe family.

England squad averages,

Taylor lifts England A, page 34

ENGLAND TOUR PARTY

M A Atherton Lancashire, capt

A J Stewart Surrey, vice-capt

A R Caddick Somerset

A R C Fraser Middlesex

G A Hick Worcestershire

N Hussain Essex

A P Igglesden Kent

C C Lewis Nottinghamshire

D E Malcolm Derbyshire

M P Maynard Glamorgan

M R Ramprakash Middlesex

R C Russell Gloucestershire

I D K Salisbury Sussex

R A Smith Hampshire

G P Thorpe Surrey

P C R Tufnell Middlesex

S L Watkin Glamorgan

(Photograph omitted)

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