Cricket: High stakes in Atherton's big challenge

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AS SPORTS psychologists are fond of reminding us, happy memories play a crucial part in sporting success. Yet if the edicts of science can sometimes fall down in the minds of the sceptical, this is one theory that Michael Atherton and his team will be hoping to prove beyond doubt.

Trailing 2-1 with two Tests left to play, the captain knows that only a repeat of England's stirring victory at the Kensington Oval four years ago can keep his side in with a chance of securing one of cricket's holy grails: winning a series in the Caribbean.

For Atherton, and in particular any aspirations he may have of continuing as England captain, the match is even more crucial. The Lancashire man has had many sticky moments in his career as skipper, but none will have appeared quite as stark as the one facing him over the next few days. Win and both he and England have a good chance of surviving the series. Lose and he will almost certainly resign, perhaps renouncing his leadership of the one-day squad, too.

This tour will complete a four-year cycle for Atherton, who, although somewhat eclipsed by Alec Stewart's two brilliant hundreds here in Bridgetown, also played a major role in England's win with a fine innings of 85. On that occasion, the England captain was among the runs generally, something that has not happened so far this tour, though he is not alone in that respect and Graham Thorpe is also overdue some runs.

As he did in New Zealand last winter, it is a shortfall that Atherton has tried to sort out by spending time in the nets rather than in the middle against Barbados. It is a decision that has not escaped criticism and rightly so, though with his parents and girlfriend here at various times over the last week, that criticism has tended to be hysterical rather than objective.

And yet if the omens perhaps look promising once again for a repeat of four years ago - potentially seven of that side could also play again this time - the circumstances differ vastly. With the series at stake, England cannot afford to lose, something they had already conceded by the time Barbados had come round last time.

"There is no doubt that this is a crunch match for us," said Atherton yesterday. "It will be nice to be back at the ground and we are definitely feeling positive."

Acknowledging the huge influx of England supporters that now tend to appear for the Barbados Test, Atherton said: "I'm sure the great support we got last time will be repeated." It was a sentiment later echoed by Stewart, who reckoned that the atmosphere when he and Atherton last walked out to bat here was "almost better than a home game".

What is not likely to be repeated, however, unless Stewart is given the gloves in place of Jack Russell, is the two-spinner role tried in Georgetown. Instead, Andy Caddick will return, probably in place of Phil Tufnell, whose five wickets in the last three Tests has been overhauled by Robert Croft in one match.

For the first time in the series, the pitch looks as if it has been lovingly prepared - what Stewart calls "a proper Test wicket" - with grass cuttings rolled well into a so far smooth surface. But if England's batsmen may well feel like emitting a sigh of relief, their bowlers may not be so pleased, and local pundits are already predicting a double century from Brian Lara.

Even so, the new ball will bounce steeply and whichever side dominates the opening skirmishes - either by bat or ball - could well go on to control the course of the match. But if this suggests grittily contested beginnings, think again, and with the big hitting Philo Wallace and the expansive Clayton Lambert set to open the batting for the West Indies, the first few overs will be anything but dull.

Even so, with both sides' bowlers so far reliant upon generous help from the pitches, many feel that the game could well be a draw. History is against this outcome and the last draw on this ground came when Pakistan played here in 1977.

If there is a pattern that recent history upholds, it is that the team winning the toss has a habit of putting their opponents in, mainly with dire consequences. In fact since 1986, captains winning the toss have seen fit to put the opposition in 10 times, a ploy that has yielded only a single success despite the help this pitch is believed to provide pace bowlers with on the first morning.

Wherever the toss falls, England and their captain badly need to win this game. Persuaded against his better judgement to continue as captain five months ago, Atherton knows he must resurrect the spirit and level of England's performance here in 1994 if he is to extend his tenure.

With the series not yet decided and West Indies, particularly Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh, far from complacent, it may be the greatest test of his captaincy. It is certainly the most pressing, and the next few days will see if the great survivor can add some belated glory to his longevity by winning here and taking the series into the final Test in Antigua.

England (probable): M Atherton (capt), A Stewart, M Butcher, N Hussain, G Thorpe, M Ramprakash, R Russell (wkt), R Croft, A Caddick, D Headley, A Fraser.

West Indies (from): P Wallace, C Lambert, B Lara (capt), S Chanderpaul, C Hooper, J Adams, D Williams (wkt), C Ambrose, N McLean, D Ramnarine, C Walsh, R Holder, I Bishop.