ENGLAND'S unrivalled capacity for snatching disaster from the jaws of serenity was more than enough to make their supporters feel uneasy about starting to shed wickets after a fine start in the fourth Test yesterday - but even so, the punter who plunged in with pounds 2,000 at 12-1 before the game might have been in possession of more of his marbles than most people would have given him credit for.
Mysteriously put in to bat in the West Indies' historically unshakeable citadel, Alec Stewart and Michael Atherton confounded everyone who believed that this would turn out to be yet another one-sided confrontation involving the unspeakable in pursuit of the unbeatable.
With England having cobbled together 46 runs for all 10 wickets on their last outing, against only two bowlers in Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh, their first-wicket pair yesterday put on 171 runs in a shade under four hours before Atherton was caught in the slips for 85, and Stewart went on to make his fifth Test century as England stumbled just a little to 299 for 5 at the close.
Stewart's attacking innings of 118 finally ended to another belligerent stroke, when he bottom-edged an attempted cut and lost his middle stump. Atherton was first to go, but his dismissal owed more to the batsman overdosing on adrenalin rather than to being prised out. Having struck his previous two balls from Kenneth Benjamin for four, Atherton went looking for the next one, and was undone by some extra bounce as he edged at a comfortable height to Brian Lara.
Mark Ramprakash then got a thinner edge off Winston Benjamin. He has now been out in the 20s no less than nine times in 14 Test innings against the West Indies.
Robin Smith's dismal run continued. He had scored 10 when he played a poor stroke outside his off stump to give the keeper another catch.
Graeme Hick, once again looking horribly nervous, was lucky to get away with an lbw appeal by Ambrose before he had scored, and survived a difficult chance to second slip when 16 against Kenneth Benjamin. It was very much the two Benjamins' day and it was Kenneth who took the fifth wicket with the second new ball shortly before bad light halted play for the day, when Graham Thorpe carved carelessly outside off stump and edged to second slip.
There has already been enough evidence during this series that certain aspects of Richie Richardson's decision- making elevate his predecessor, Viv Richards, into the Mike Brearley bracket of egghead captaincy, and yesterday's decision to insert England on the truest surface thus far defied most forms of logic.
He presumably wanted to get at England's batsmen while the psychological hangover from Port of Spain was still fresh, although his own batsmen must have burst into tears at the thought of what they might have done to England's attack. Furthermore, in the 1990 Test here, it was Ambrose's exploitation of the uneven bounce from a worn fifth-day pitch that effectively won the game for the West Indies.
There was only occasional evidence of the extra bounce that both captains forecast for the first day, and once Atherton and Stewart had safely negotiated Ambrose and the new ball, it made a refreshing change to witness a decent contest. Even so, it was a touching act of faith to see Smith (who walked out to bat at 1 for 2 after five balls in his previous Test innings) not even padded up when the openers left the dressing-room.
Although Stewart had not scored heavily in the series, he has produced some rousing strokeplay whenever he has made a start, and when he got stuck into Walsh in the closing stages of the morning session, England also made the pleasant discovery that the umpiring was for once not based on the principle of whistle a happy tune and look the other way.
In Jamaica, the neutral umpire (Ian Robinson of Zimbabwe) had opted to equip himself with a blindfold when Walsh was working over Devon Malcolm with round-the-wicket ribcage balls, but when Stewart pulled two consecutive deliveries from Walsh for four, and then received an illegal two bouncers in the same over, the Australian official Darrell Hair took a less sanguine view.
Unusually, Hair was at square leg when he decided that Walsh had committed an offence, and it was his approach to the West Indian umpire Lloyd Barker which then led to Barker calling a no-ball. Walsh was so upset by this that it required manual assistance from Ambrose to get him back to his mark, but Walsh may not have been as miffed as Stewart, who clearly did not object to Walsh pitching short to him all day.
The Atherton-Stewart liaison was even more productive than the 121 they opened the series with in Jamaica, and both played with a confidence and positive approach that was scarcely believable given England's spineless performance in the Board XI match in Grenada.
Stewart's fifth Test century was also his first for 18 matches (perhaps significantly, he has kept wicket in 10 of those), and his first against the West Indies. He once had the audacity to hook Ambrose for four from in front of his helmet, and when he reached three figures, after nearly five hours and 191 deliveries, the English section of the crowd - there were so many English supporters inside the ground it was more like Kensington High Street than the Kensington Oval - came very close to delirium.
KENSINGTON OVAL SCOREBOARD
ENGLAND - First Innings
*M A Atherton c Lara b K Benjamin. . . . . . . . . .85
(222 min, 165 balls, 14 fours)
A J Stewart b W Benjamin. . . . . . . . . . . . . .118
(347 min, 221 balls, 18 fours)
M R Ramprakash c Murray b W Benjamin. . . . . . . . 20
(63 min, 52 balls, 3 fours)
R A Smith c Murray b W Benjamin. . . . . . . . . . .10
(23 min, 17 balls, 2 fours)
G A Hick not out. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 26
(88 min, 54 balls, 5 fours)
G P Thorpe c sub (Simmons) b K Benjamin. . . . . . . 7
(34 min, 23 balls)
R C Russell not out . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .3
(15 min, 14 balls)
Extras (lb7 nb23). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 30
Total (for 5, 402 min, 86 overs). . . . . . . . . . 299
Fall: 1-171 (Atherton), 2-223 (Ramprakash), 3-242 (Smith), 4-265 (Stewart), 5-290 (Thorpe).
To bat: C C Lewis, A R Caddick, A R C Fraser, P C R Tufnell.
Bowling: Ambrose 17-3-62-0 (nb9) (5-2- 16-0, 7-1-20-0 5-0-26-0), Walsh 22-3-85-0 (nb16) (5-0-21-0, 5-2-14-0, 5-0-26-0, 7-1-24- 0), W Benjamin 17-4-48-3 (nb1) (2-1-1-0, 5-1-23-0, 2-0-8-0, 8-2-16-3), K Benjamin 20- 5-74-2 (nb4) (7-2-29-0, 2-1-6-0, 8-2-27-1, 3-0-12-1), Chanderpaul 10-4-23-0 (1-1-0-0 9-3-23-0).
Progress: 50: 69 min, 15.1 overs. Lunch: 83-0 (Atherton 43, Stewart 33) 27 overs. 100: 134 min, 29.4 overs. 150: 198 min, 43 overs. Tea: 187-1 (Stewart 82, Ramprakash 4) 54 overs. 200: 258 min, 58 overs. 250: 325 min, 71.1 overs. New ball taken after 79 overs at 273-4. Bad light stopped play at 5.44pm. Atherton 50: 151 min, 109 balls, 8 fours. Stewart 50: 135 min, 92 balls, 8 fours. 100: 293 min, 191 balls, 15 fours.
WEST INDIES: D L Haynes, *R B Richardson, B C Lara, K L T Arthurton, J C Adams, S Chanderpaul, J R Murray, W K M Benjamin, C E L Ambrose, K C G Benjamin, C A
Umpires: L H Barker and D B Hair.
Match referee: J R Reid.