Cricket: Stewart and Hick's efforts in vain

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The Independent Online
India 560 for 6 dec

England 221 for 7

FOR THIS England team, bad news really does come in threes. First, the new Indian spin-bowling trinity of Kumble, Raju and Chauhan wrecked their batting in Calcutta. Then Gooch, Gatting and Smith all fell victim to digestive disorders on the first morning of the second Test in Madras. And England's only real chance of achieving anything in this match disappeared when the first-innings partnership of Alec Stewart and Graeme Hick was broken yesterday afternoon when they had put on 111: the dreaded Nelson, the three digits that put fear in the hearts of all properly superstitious English cricketers. Hick, as it happened, fell to one of the day's three leg-before dismissals, all of them far from beyond dispute.

Badly needing some sort of lift after Calcutta, they were struck lower even before they could take the field in Madras. The sickness and the second lost toss in a row condemned them to watch as India built a massive total on a pitch that was always going to break up some time around the weekend.

Weary and dispirited by the home team's resplendent progress to a first-innings declaration at 560 for 6, during which important catches were missed by senior players, England began their innings in a mood of apprehension and probably did no worse than they themselves expected to end the third day at 221 for 7 and in some disarray.

Keith Fletcher, the tour manager, affecting a wry fatalism, suggested that the groundsman at the Chidambaram Stadium deserved some credit for the home team's showing. 'The pitch has justified all our fears,' he said after close of play on the third day. 'It's ideal for them, and I think it's going to get even more difficult. It's just a pity we didn't win the toss, or the one before. Then we might have been in a different position.'

Perhaps, but that fails to do justice to the way Mohammed Azharuddin has turned his team around after a dismal tour of South Africa. These Indians, by contrast with some in the recent past, look cohesive and motivated, well balanced in almost every respect, notably between the experience of Azharuddin, Kapil Dev and Kiran More and the youthful promise of Sachin Tendulkar, Vinod Kambli, Venkatapathy Raju and Anil Kumble. They batted with relaxed menace, bowled in the constant expectation of taking wickets, and were crisp and unforgiving in the field.

Allegations of professional misconduct were made during the England innings, when there were mutterings that the Indians had been warned about scuffing the pitch. In the match-officials' room at the end of yesterday's play, the umpire V K Ramaswamy told me that they had taken action on three occasions during the day. First they had asked the bowlers not to follow though on the pitch. Then, at Alec Stewart's behest, they had invited the Indians to hold their between-overs conferences elsewhere than on the playing surface. Finally, they had warned Kiran More, the Indian wicketkeeper, not to walk on the sensitive areas in his spiked boots.

Ramaswamy's colleague, Professor R S Rathore, gave all three of the leg-before decisions, the first of them against Robin Smith, a makeshift opener whose courage during a stay of 27 overs could never for a moment disguise his fundamental unease when confronted by artful slow bowling. Trapped against his stumps by the tall, bespectacled leg-spinner Kumble, he may have felt that the ball, which had not turned, would have passed leg stump.

Hick's removal by the prancing off-spinner Rajesh Chauhan, 144 minutes later, also had the batsman shaking his head in vexed disagreement. Too high, too wide? Most people thought so. It had been a thoroughly convincing innings in which he surpassed his previous highest Test score, 51 against Pakistan last year. He and Stewart, concentrating ferociously, playing every ball on its merits, sweeping less than the average Brahmin, had settled so well that Hick was able to step out in the over before lunch and hit the looping deliveries of the left-arm spinner Raju for three consecutive fours without a hint of risk.

After Hick, though, enter Mike Gatting, whose last score for England on this ground, eight years ago, was 207 (out of 652 for seven). Twenty minutes and nine runs later, exit Mike Gatting, who had pushed the ball hard to Pravin Amre at forward short leg, moved instinctively out of his ground, and been beaten by the fielder's return. A banal error by Gatting, to follow his dropped dolly on Friday, but a fair reward for Amre, who was in the middle of a long, hot day spent inside a helmet a couple of yards from the bat.

After tea, the domino effect. The admirable Stewart, now in his shell, gave a catch off the deceptively gentle Raju to the substitute fielder, Woorker Raman, at silly point. Richard Blakey, in his first Test innings, tried hard to do the right thing and dig in but soon, sighting Raju's worst ball of the day, lavishly swept it on to his stumps. (At this point, one pondered on the folly of leaving Mike Atherton to carry the drinks tray.) Chris Lewis, by contrast, received what may have been Raju's best ball, fizzing almost vertically from the dry, crumbling earth and popping off the shoulder of the all- rounder's bat into Azharuddin's hands at second slip.

And then, 140 minutes and 63 runs and five wickets after Hick's departure had put an end to optimism, came the third leg-before decision. The England party sensibly refuse to comment on umpiring decisions, but it seemed pretty clear that Ian Salisbury had taken Kumble's delivery in the box rather than on the pad.

So it remained only for Neil Fairbrother to sweep and slash his way to a characteristically brave undefeated 38, surviving a couple of missed chances behind the wicket with the sort of luck England feel they have generally been lacking on this tour.

Of course, Gooch would have made a difference to this match. But so would Atherton, whose omission was doubly exposed by the need to open with Smith and to spare Stewart's energies by including Blakey. Two lost tosses, maybe, but also, following the neglect of Tufnell in Calcutta, two crucial errors of selection. Mostly, even in enemy territory, you make your own luck.

(Photograph omitted)

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