Cricket: Magnificent Ramprakash saves the day

Bridgetown, Barbados: England 229-5 v West Indies
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ENGLAND'S cricketers, despite their fine showing here four years ago, have never taken to Barbados as happily as the holidaymakers who find their way here from Blighty. But if one lot are used to getting cooked by the sun, the others were more in danger of being roasted by traditional West Indian fast bowling until Mark Ramprakash, posting his highest Test score, and Graham Thorpe, the latter's half-century interrupted by back spasms, added an unbroken 98 runs for the sixth wicket.

Batting with great aplomb, Ramprakash, dropped on two by Curtly Ambrose off his own bowling, spent over four and a half hours in the middle. Looking composed at the crease, the Middlesex captain took full advantage of a splendid batting pitch to finish the day unbeaten on 80, an innings filled with mature as well as daring strokes, like an on-driven four off Ambrose.

Thorpe, inconvenienced by his back injury, was no less impressive. In obvious pain early on, the left-hander bravely overcame his debility, eventually flourishing as the West Indies bowlers flagged later in the day.

It was a priceless effort by the two batsmen, who resurrected England's fortunes, which, at 55 for 4, were at a low ebb before lunch. Indeed, until England's fightback, it had been Caribbean cricket of recent history; brutal, fast and unstinting bowling by men seemingly taller than giants.

The average age of the home side may have risen to over 30, but they sniff an opening as keenly as a child can smell sweets, and only some plucky batting by England's middle-order prevented a first-day rout after Michael Atherton had lost the toss.

Although his inability to win the toss is legendary, Atherton's failure with the bat is a fairly recent phenomenon, and another low score again meant his side were exposed without a steady platform to build upon. It is never easy captaining a side when you are barely contributing yourself and Atherton, averaging 13 from his eight Test innings here so far, will have had his normally lucid thoughts scrambled by searching for cures to his batting malaise.

His thoughts were spot on in one respect, however, and long before the match had begun, both he and Brian Lara had suggested that the new ball would prove crucial. In Atherton's case it was a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the extra bounce undid both him and Alec Stewart as the home side resorted to their familiar strengths of accurate and hostile fast bowling.

Poor England. Confronted by the first good batting pitch of the series, they got off to a cracking start, Stewart stroking a brace of delightful boundaries. But Courtney Walsh and Ambrose are not two of the leading wicket takers in history for nothing and they felt their way into the situation, not tentatively, but like Greek Gods probing with thunderbolts.

For once, the pressure - although conversely it may have been the shock of a true pitch - got to Stewart, who on the testing tracks in Trinidad and Guyana has been comfortably England's best batsman. In truth he had looked at home on this Oval-like pitch, until Walsh, getting one to bounce from short of a length, had him caught behind by David Williams.

By the Surrey man's impeccable standards it was a soft dismissal, and he would have chastised himself for trifling with a ball that he could have left well alone.

Predictably, the wicket sent the fast men into overdrive. Four overs later, Atherton, top-edging Walsh to Ambrose at long leg, followed his opening partner back to the pavilion, his run of low scores clearly forcing him into the ambitious and impatient hook shot that brought his downfall.

The same misery can probably be applied to his vice-captain Nasser Hussain, who, since his brilliant 61 in the first of the Trinidad matches, has not made a significant score. Bedevilled by some poor decisions, as well as some poor shots, Hussain has clearly misplaced the bravado his batting thrives on. Without it he is prone to misjudgements and, swaying inside a fast bouncer from Nixon McLean, his second in as many balls, he ended up gloving the ball to a leaping Brian Lara at first slip.

By now the hardness, and consequently the potency, of the new ball had begun to wane. But if it became less easy to dismiss batsmen simply by willpower, patience proved an effective substitute. Probing away around Mark Butcher's off-stump, Ambrose eventually forced the left-hander to edge low to Hooper at second slip to leave England reeling on 53 for 4, and in some disarray as Thorpe's temporary retirement through injury at lunch forced Jack Russell to join Mark Ramprakash, now looking like a Test batsman of class.

A fighter, who no doubt realises that he was perhaps fortunate to be selected, Russell came out of the pavilion like a gunfighter emerging from the "Last Chance Saloon." He started batting like one too, blazing away with a series of pulls and cuts. He soon left Ramprakash eating his dust.

The momentum, if not the workmanlike style of the progress, was just what England needed. Apart from causing the West Indies to pause for thought, it allowed Ramprakash to play himself in, without feeling pressured into keeping the scoreboard ticking over.

Once settled, the roles suddenly became reversed, with Ramprakash, at last finding the gaps as well as his timing, scoring freely. Russell, meanwhile, finding himself stranded down Carl Hooper's end, began to retreat into his shell.

It was a change that proved ominous for England and, when the pair had added 76 runs, Russell, pushing forward to Hooper, squirted one off bat and pad to Clayton Lambert at short-leg. Moments later Thorpe, his back spasm having been eased or dulled by painkillers, returned to assist Ramprakash to ensure that England's day in the sun was not totally red-faced.

bridgetown scoreboard

West Indies won toss

ENGLAND - First Innings

*M A Atherton c Ambrose b Walsh 11

(42 min, 28 balls, 2 fours)

A J Stewart c D Williams b Walsh 12

(23 min, 12 balls, 2 fours)

M A Butcher c Hooper b Ambrose 19

(83 min, 52 balls, 1 four)

N Hussain c Lara b McLean 5

(22 min, 17 balls, 1 four)

G P Thorpe not out 50

(226 min, 158 balls, 4 fours)

M R Ramprakash not out 80

(285 min, 215 balls, 10 fours)

R C Russell c Lambert b Hooper 32

(99 min, 71 balls, 5 fours)

Extras (lb7 w2 nb11) 20

Total (for 5, 393 mins, 90 overs) 229

Fall: 1-23 (Stewart), 2-24 (Atherton), 3-33 (Hussain), 4-53 (Butcher), 5-131 (Russell).

To bat: A R Caddick, D W Headley, A R C Fraser, P C R Tufnell.

Bowling (to date): Walsh 21-6-57-2 (nb4) (9-3-24-2, 3-1-11-0, 7-2-17- 0, 2-0-5-0); Ambrose 18-5-30-1 (nb3,w1) (4-3-5-0, 8-1-15-1, 6-1-10-0); McLean 14-3-39-1 (6-1-19-1, 7-2-19-0, 1-0-1-0); Hooper 21-6-34-1 (3-2- 1-0, 18-4-33-1); Bishop 13-1-46-0 (nb7) (8-0-31-0, 5-1-15-0); Chanderpaul 3-0-16-0 (one spell).

Progress: First day: 50: 94 min, 20 overs. Lunch: 55-4 (Thorpe 5, Ramprakash 2) 26 overs. Thorpe retired hurt at lunch with back spasms and returned at the fall of the fifth wicket. 100: 187 min, 41.3 overs. Tea: 149-5 (Ramprakash 45, Thorpe 10) 56 overs. 150: 248 min, 57.3 overs. 200: 330 min, 76.2 overs. New ball taken after 81 overs at 212-5.

Thorpe's 50: 226 min, 158 balls, 4 fours. Ramprakash's 50: 156 min, 123 balls, 6 fours.

WEST INDIES: C B Lambert, P A Wallace, *B C Lara, S Chanderpaul, C L Hooper, R I C Holder, D Williams, I R Bishop, C E L Ambrose, N A M McLean, C A Walsh.

Umpires: C J Mitchley and E Nicholls.