Cricket / Fourth Test: England led fron despair to distinction: Atherton's captaincy deserves its due for repaining broken spirits. Tony Cozier reports from Bridgetown

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The Independent Online
CREDIT where credit is due and it has seldom been more deservedly due than to the England leadership after this remarkable Test match.

When Mike Atherton sat in the dressing-room at the Queen's Park Oval a fortnight ago, his face ashen with shock and disappointment, and honestly conceded that he had spent the worst hour of his life on the previous afternoon as England tumbled towards their 46 all out, it was impossible to see how the tourists could avoid yet another 5-0 shellacking at the hands of the West Indies.

They had not only been beaten for the third successive time in the series but had been utterly humiliated in the eyes of the sporting world. Not only their youthful captain would have had that hollow feeling of despair. His players, the hardened correspondents in the press box who had been through it all before and the hundreds of England supporters on hand had also been stunned into stupified silence.

Every team have had to endure it, if not quite as consistently as England of late. West Indians still recoil at disturbing memories of their 5-1 thrashing by Lillee and Thomson, the Chappell brothers and other ruthless Australians in 1975-76. By the last couple of Tests everyone was playing as if in a trance, simply waiting for the torture to be over so they could get back to the sanctuary of family and friends.

England's Easter weekend debacle in Grenada, where they meekly surrendered to the West Indies 2nd XI, seemed only to confirm that their spirit had been irreparably broken. Their hordes of holiday-making fans, flooding in to Grantley Adams airport by the planeload, might have wondered just what new disaster they had paid their money to witness. That the venue was Kensington Oval, where no invader had managed to overthrow the West Indies in 59 years, must have heightened the pessimism.

The astonishing revival could be attributed to several factors. The players were clearly lifted by the visible and vocal presence of their countrymen who filled half the ground, waving their flags, chanting their songs and hailing every unexpected triumph, just as the West Indies themselves used to be by their kith and kin who made the Test at London's Oval virtually a home match.

Richie Richardson's decision to bowl first provided England with an ideal surface on which to repair broken hearts and Atherton and his deputy Alec Stewart made the most of it with their opening stand of 171 on the first day. From that point England were on the mend.

Yet such a recovery could not have been possible without the inspiration of the leadership - Atherton, Stewart, Keith Fletcher and MJK Smith. In this regard the fact that they were in command of a group of keen young players, all fighting for their professional lives and with everything to play for, was probably an advantage. Men of experience who had been through it all before might have been inclined to more readily accept the inevitable, not to believe that something could be salvaged from the wreckage of Port of Spain.

And it should not for one moment be believed that the West Indies approached this Test with anything less than full commitment because they had already secured the series. Defeat is not comfortably countenanced by West Indian people, particularly in Barbados where only those in their dotage can recall such a demise.