Cricket: Fear that fed a giant's hunger: Derek Pringle says self-destruction played a part in an historic capitulation

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The Independent Online
THERE was a moment - just after Graham Thorpe's off stump had been uprooted - when Curtly Ambrose became aware of what he had done. Until then, he had not quite realised the extent of the carnage. But as England plummeted to 40 for eight, the giant Antiguan, in a baptismal gesture that shouted 'I have delivered them', spread his arms wide and with a trance-like stare met the jubilation of his team-mates.

Such devastation is not new to Ambrose. Last year he sent the Australians packing with a spell of seven wickets for only one run in 35 balls. Where last Tuesday's performance differs is that it transformed England's chances of winning the match from about 60-40 to zero in the the space of just 15 overs. It was electrifying, and absolute in its decisiveness.

Batting routs like England's are not as rare as many imagine, though at Test level the effect is more humiliating and psychologically damaging. This is particularly true in the midst of a series, whereas in the constant flux of county cricket, the fixture list provides welcome opportunity for amnesia.

Back in 1983, John Lever and I were both injured during Essex's home game against Surrey. Having come to the ground for treatment, we watched the game from the players' balcony as Surrey were bowled out for 14 (their lowest ever total) on a perfectly respectable pitch by Norbert Phillip and Neil Foster. There were mitigating circumstances - the ball was swinging in can-opening curves - but from our vantage point next to the opposition changing room, we were afforded a unique glimpse of a team in crisis.

At first, responses were as you would expect; some effing and blinding, the odd excuse even. After a while, the procession became such a rout that the Surrey No 10, Sylvester Clarke, refused to get out of his bath because he thought his team-mates' exhortations for him to pad up were a wind-up.

When you are bowling against a team that is in total disarray, your own confidence is buoyed by their uncertainty. Bowlers feed off fear. It pumps the adrenalin, so that when a procession of batsmen come to the wicket wide-eyed and in a trance, it is easy to claim the upper hand. In this context, it is pertinent to consider how the West Indies would have coped had they been facing Ambrose last Tuesday. 'We would have played more shots,' said their captain, Richie Richardson, adding the rider that this was the most decisive spell he had ever seen from Ambrose, and that perhaps there was little anyone could have done.

Like England, Surrey also resigned themselves to the fact that there was an inevitability about their ruin. Nobody proffered any advice, not the captain, Roger Knight, nor the then Surrey manager Micky Stewart. There was just an eerie silence broken only by the sound of batsmen tramping up and down the pavilion steps.

Much the same silence was in evidence during England's second-innings debacle. Later I asked Mike Atherton if he had said anything to his beleaguered batsmen. 'Before we batted, I had told everyone to be positive,' he said. 'By that I didn't mean that they had to go out and play extravagant shots. Just that they had to be positive in mind and deed.' But what about in the middle of the crisis? Did he or Keith Fletcher have anything to say to the batsmen waiting to go in?

'No. What can you say to people in that situation? It's not something you would ever have catered for, even though cricket constantly throws up strange scenarios. It was the worst hour's cricket that I've ever experienced.'

In a crisis, no one's knowledge is less secure than your own. As theories proliferate, all logic is squandered in favour of some hastily constructed philosophy or method. When this happens, you need an experienced head to take control and force a return to reliance on basic technique. Even stating the obvious has its merits on these occasions.

An example by deed is, however, the best method and how England needed the fight and nous of Gooch and Lamb, though it is doubtful whether either would have survived the first ball Atherton received, which cut back at pace from the perfect length.

Instead, England have relied during this tour on Robin Smith, who has not relished his role as the senior player. Although he had the right idea by getting on the front foot to Ambrose, his technique let him down, a diagonal bat allowing the ball just enough room to tear a path between bat and pad and to rearrange his leg stump. Everyone has a bad trot from time to time but Smith seems to have one every time he goes on tour. He has been curiously and worringly unfocused on this trip.

Apart from testing technique to the full, England's situation in Port of Spain lay bare a player's resolve, revealing the true nature of his mettle. Graeme Hick has now had 21 Tests to establish himself as the dominating player he is at county level. In that time he has looked convincing on only a handful of occasions. Last Tuesday was his biggest chance to lay to rest the demons pursuing him. He failed miserably.

Whether or not the long anxious wait to become qualified for England has scrambled his mind is not clear. What is obvious, though, is that as soon as the pressure bites, Hick is found wanting. Anyone can get a good ball, but on Tuesday Hick looked as if any ball could get him out. In fact he was so tentative that he hardly laid bat on ball.

When he did make contact, he appeared so keen to flee the strike that he nearly twice ran out Alec Stewart. Where calmness and consolidation were needed, Hick opted for the flimsy frenetics seen at the end of most one-day matches. Instead of bolstering the batting, he allowed the breach to be ripped open. Unless he can quickly show a far greater return on his 21-Test investment, Hick's days at this level are sure to be curtailed.

As is the case with ritual humiliations, culprits are sought. Geoffrey Boycott, for instance, has blamed Fletcher for his shortcomings as a batting coach. This has little basis and is a thinly veiled taunt, given the England team manager's decision not to use Boycott as Gooch had done in the past. Ian Chappell, meanwhile, has accused Fletcher of perpetuating a negative attitude to Test cricket, an extension of the cynicism that pervades the county game. This, too, is a little wide of the mark. Although bold and decisive at county level, Fletcher has been more than a little meek since assuming the England job, and his record of 10 losses from 12 Tests does little to help his case.

By their own admission, the England selectors came here with an inexperienced side, a calculated gamble to break from a past that had become too accustomed to a losing habit. This was a fresh departure, applauded in most parts of the media. There were dangers, not least the fact that the West Indies' fast bowlers could destroy the spirit of a young side to such an extent that some players might never recover. So what? This is surely a basic tenet of Darwinian evolution. The law of the jungle is as applicable to sport as it is to nature, for both have intense competition for supremacy. If a tour like this has its casualties, then so be it. Ultimately, the sifting out of the weak can only be for the good.

Graham Gooch long ago spotted that special qualities are needed to play against the West Indies. He always reckoned that you had to take any humiliation personally; that the only way to survive against them was to bear a grudge and take it to the absolute edge of the game, without quite letting it spill over into ordinary life. In the battling mould of Gooch, Peter Willey was a perfect example of somebody who always found himself picked to play against the West Indies yet then dropped for more talented players, but who could not take the heat once New Zealand or India came round.

Because England are never going to win games easily at Test level, any chances they have are going to be in pressure situations. To be successful, Atherton must identify those players who can cope with pressure and respond to it in a positive and responsible way. This is not going to be easy and his most immediate task is to try to make light of last week's nightmare.

After Surrey's calamity at Essex, the four players who had managed to get off the mark had T-shirts made with their name and score on, under the heading 'The Fabulous Four'. Those who failed to score had 'The Magnificent Seven' printed on theirs. They also had seven ties printed with the numeral 7 picked out with small ducks. But lest the events should not be taken seriously, Micky Stewart banned the ties from being worn. Surrey, by the way, lost only two wickets in their second innings and the game ended in a draw.