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Cricket: Russell may pay price of failure

PLAN B, or not Plan B? That is the question. But, with England hoping to play an unchanged side in today's third Test against the West Indies, minor surgery is required if England are to recover and get back in the series.

Today's Test will be Michael Atherton's 49th as England captain. It is also one of the most important of his career. Win it and the last minute U-turn he made to stay on last September will begin to seem the right decision. Lose it and the remaining three matches will seem like purgatory.

Monday's stinging defeat has not lain lightly on Atherton and, when he was eventually able to drag himself out of his room the next day, he cut a forlorn figure by the hotel pool. Sipping an orange squash he sat for a full 20 minutes shaking his head as he recalled the enormity of England's reverse.

Yet, if Atherton has proved anything over his career, it is that he is resilient beyond compare and, following a team meeting where "nobody hid behind anything" and everyone "got things into the open," he felt his side would rebound, despite playing the Test on the same ground.

"It was important to have a couple of days off," said Atherton before practice yesterday. "It was one of the most draining Test matches I've ever played in. Not only was it unusually hot it was tense, too. Every session was on a knife edge. After the way we lost it was important to clear the mind and get away from the ground and the cricket.

"We've learned a harsh lesson, but it's better to learn it now while there are four Tests to go, than if it was the decider in a month's time. Test matches simply don't fall into your lap and I think we got to a stage where we just presumed we'd win. I don't believe we bottled it. We just didn't play with enough conviction."

One of the problems in losing a gruelling Test match is that the tired limbs and bruises, which tend to miraculously vanish after victory, suddenly begin to niggle away. Indeed, if the rain that has skirted Port of Spain over the last few days recedes and the hot weather returns, it will be interesting to see how much the 30-year-old bowlers in both sides cope, especially in the second innings.

In the last match Angus Fraser was not only England's trump card, he held all the aces as well. But if the other bowlers will probably not bowl as poorly again, England should be bold and play an extra frontline bowler instead of Jack Russell. Depending on how the pitch scrubs up this morning, either Ashley Cowan or Robert Croft ought to play.

There is little doubt that Russell, England's wicketkeeper, has been harshly treated in the past. But although he has been kept waiting for 18 months, Russell's 50th Test was not one to be immortalised on canvas.

For once, despite the risks inherent in lengthening the tail, the means justify the end. Psychologically, England need a boost. When you lose a Test after dominating all but two morning sessions, it is inevitable that you feel mentally hamstrung, and England know they are unlikely to put together a better sequence of play against this opposition again in the series. Bringing in new blood offers renewed hope and possibly a different tack.

In any case, the pitch, slightly damp at the moment - it was flooded after the previous match and with overcast weather about has not completely dried - has been better prepared than its predecessor, which was far grassier.

According to Bryan Davis, the pitch supervisor here, batting will be tricky at first, with the pitch playing at its best on the second and third days. Unless England win the toss and bowl the West Indies out cheaply, they will need all the bowling they can get.

However, Atherton and David Lloyd, conscious that the remainder of the squad have had perilously little cricket, are intending to play an unchanged side. Adam Hollioake, underbowled since recovering from his shoulder injury, will have a late fitness test on a sore back. If he fails it, either Mark Butcher or Mark Ramprakash will bat at No 6.

By rights it should not be the only change and, whenever an imbalance has been created in the past, it is Russell's head that has tended to end up in the basket. And, rightly or wrongly, it has become a natural cut.

But if both teams look well balanced it is England who need to win, or at the very worst draw, this Test. Mathematical possibilities may exist, but to leave Trinidad 2-0 down is an equation even Einstein would probably not care to resolve.

If Atherton has ever harboured aspirations of becoming a gambler, now is the time to start.

WEST INDIES (probable): S L Campbell, S C Williams, B V Lara (capt), C L Hooper, S Chanderpaul, J C Adams, D Williams (wkt), C E L Ambrose, K C G Benjamin, N A M McLean, C A Walsh.

ENGLAND (probable): M A Atherton (capt), A J Stewart, J P Crawley, N Hussain, G P Thorpe, A J Hollioake, R C Russell (wkt), A R Caddick, D W Headley, A R C Fraser, P C R Tufnell.