Cricket: Ramprakash sweeps doubts aside

Guyana 184; England 200-6
THE TEST series may be level, but the competition for places in England's Test team continues unabated as one man's stumbling block becomes another's platform. But if Mark Ramprakash, ignored until this match, had earmarked next week for a jungle trip to the interior, an unbeaten 68 is sure to have seen it cancelled in favour of more pressing goings on at the Bourda where the Fourth Test takes place in four days' time.

There are worse things lurking in this South American jungle than the cratered pitch that England are playing this match on, but few handled it as well as Ramprakash. Arriving at the crease for his first knock in five months, the Middlesex captain - following a nervous start where he could quite easily have been run out getting off the mark - batted with great authority for more than four hours, an innings that allowed England to go into the final day's play, nursing a narrow lead of 16 runs.

It may not have been Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh posing the problems, but on a turning pitch, the left-arm spin of Neil McGarrell and leggies of Mohindra Nagamoottoo, if not as physically intimidating, were just as likely to take wickets. Which of course they did, until Ramprakash stemmed the flow, albeit with some help from Adam Hollioake and Robert Croft.

Apart from helping England, who were 60 for 4 at lunch, to correct an unpromising situation, Ramprakash's innings was as much a test of character, as anything else. But as Mark Butcher had proved in the last Test in Trinidad, lack of time spent in the middle is not necessarily a handicap, and Ramprakash was soon timing the ball as he would for Middlesex in July.

One of the keys to playing on a turning pitch is to pick both length and shot quickly. Another is to sweep anything off the line of the stumps. If 10 years under Mike Gatting has taught Ramprakash anything, it is how to play spin, and once set, he twice swept McGarrell to the fence before lofting Nagamoottoo for four over mid-on.

The pitch, flat as a pancake when the match began on Saturday, has become dusty and pitted. In other words, ideal for spin and before Ramprakash's arrival, Guyana were able to keep England's batsmen under constant pressure. With his short economical run, it was McGarrell who bowled the majority of the morning's overs, toil for which he was amply rewarded. Extracting regular turn before lunch, the left-arm spinner removed Butcher, as well as John Crawley and Nasser Hussain, as England fought to stay in the match. In fact, of the first six wickets to fall, only Atherton did not fall to spin, the England captain having been lured into driving at a wide one by the opening bowler, Reon King.

In contrast to Croft's excellent effort from the same end the previous day, the 26-year-old spinner did not use flight to tempt the batsmen but relied on a nagging accuracy, accompanied by slow turn, to frustrate them.

As a game, cricket tends to make fools of the very best, and had Butcher not been so crucial to England's Test victory in Trinidad, his scratchy innings may well have batted him out of contention for the next Test. As it was, a leg-side heave at McGarrell put him out of his misery.

For Crawley, failure is likely to prove more expensive, and his departure for 10 may well have cost him his place in the Test team. A good player of spin, Crawley's weakness, which has been exposed in the Caribbean, is against accurate fast bowlers attacking his off-stump. Ironically, it was spin that did for him here, his hands a shade too soft, as he watched the ball trickle back from a textbook forward defensive on to the stumps.

Like Hussain, who looked to be the victim of a dubious lbw decision involving McGarrell's arm ball, Crawley was unlucky. But one man's misfortune is another's opportunity, and after lunch both Ramprakash and Hollioake matched each other run for run, in a bid to secure that elusive Test place.

Matching each other run for run, the pair went about repairing the England innings, adding 75 runs until Hollioake, playing back to McGarrell, was bowled for 35. After tea, Nagamoottoo took his first wicket of the day when he had Jack Russell caught at leg-gully by Travis Dowlin as the batsman tried to sweep.

With Croft at the crease, England, their score reading 148 for 6, were by no means out of the mire. However, batting almost as sensibly as he had bowled the previous day, Croft kept Ramprakash company, as the pair saw England overhaul the 184 Guyana had scored in their first innings. Coupled with his fine 6 for 50 on the first day of the match, Croft is having an impressive match. With Tufnell yet to prove he can provide anything more than a restricting role over the left-handers in the West Indies batting order, Croft's different angles of attack and more aggressive personality could offer Atherton an alternative, should only one spinner get the nod on Friday.

Second day; Guyana won toss

GUYANA - First Innings 184 (V Nagamootoo 55, R D B Croft 6-50).

ENGLAND - First Innings

(Overnight: 9 for 0)

*M A Atherton c V Nagamootoo b King 22

M A Butcher lbw b McGarrell 13

J P Crawley b McGarrell 10

N Hussain lbw b McGarrell 5

M R Ramprakash not out 68

A J Hollioake b McGarrell 35

R C Russell c Dowlin b M Nagamoottoo 10

R D B Croft not out 25

Extras (b2, lb5, w3, nb2) 12

Total (for 6, 96 overs) 200

Fall: 1-32, 2-44, 3-56, 4-56, 5-131, 6-148.

To bat: A P Cowan, C E W Silverwood, P C R Tufnell.

Bowling: King 20-7-50-1; Stuart 18-4-32-0; McGarrell 33-8-62-4; M Nagamootoo 22-8-45-1; Dowlin 2-0-3-0; Chanderpaul 1-0-1-0.

Umpires: P Monfort and E Hinds.