Cricket: Stewart is England's saving grace

Sixth Test: Another failure at the crease and Hooper's battling hundred ensures increasing pressure on Atherton over leadership
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England 127 & 173-3 West Indies 500-7 dec

IT WAS Michael Atherton's 30th birthday yesterday, but the England captain was in anything but celebratory mood as another batting failure set the West Indies on their way after Carl Hooper's ninth Test century had given the home side a forbidding first-innings lead of 373.

Facing a deficit as large as that is never easy and with just over five sessions to bat, England were always under pressure. Nevertheless, they rallied well and galvanised by a spirited 79 from Alec Stewart and an unbeaten 54 from Nasser Hussain they finished the day on 173 for 3. More of the same today and the draw may not be as unlikely as it once seemed, following the failure of their first innings.

Draw or not, Atherton has not had a good tour with the bat and, despite a rousing chorus of "Happy Birthday" from a surprisingly merry knot of England supporters, he was once again lbw to his nemesis, Curtly Ambrose, for the third time in eight innings. Switching to the Southern End for the first time in the match, Ambrose jagged one back at the captain, who once again was caught on the crease with nowhere to go.

In an age of analysts there are bound to be those who will point to the mode of dismissal as a fault in either judgement or technique. In truth, it is probably neither and against someone of Ambrose's calibre it was simply another testing delivery that few would probably have got a bat on.

Even so, Atherton's tour figures are fairly damning, and in 11 Test innings, including the abandoned match in Jamaica where he made two, he has scored 199 runs at an average of 18. That figure is significantly lower than his age, and is by some distance the poorest by a front-line batsmen on either side.

Despite the pressure this kind of form puts any player under, let alone one who is captain, Atherton has not led his side poorly. Considering that he possesses significantly fewer match-winners than the West Indies, England's competitiveness in this series has on most occasions been heartening.

Indeed, apart from an inability to rouse his troops from their torpor both here and in Guyana, after they found themselves on the wrong side of the toss - a problem which stems more from soft county cricket rather than soft leadership - he has been far less cautious than usual.

Where he has been at fault is over his continuing stubbornness in selecting an out-of-sorts Jack Russell, who in the end appeared to become little more than a hapless pawn in a game of "Bluff my Call" between Atherton and the media. Mind you, rumours of Stewart's unwillingness to take the gloves - always denied by Stewart - may have compounded the matter. Stewart keeping wicket would have given England extra bowling options; one of the arguments for Stewart not keeping was that it would force the Surrey man to bat down the order. It is a valid point and Stewart once again did his best to support it by scoring heavily.

Touted by many as a stop-gap successor to Atherton, who will surely not be asked, or indeed want to endure any more from a team whose resolve has rarely matched his own, Stewart was in sublime form.

Driving straight and cutting square, something he rarely contemplated when he faced Ambrose and Courtney Walsh on the first day, when the pitch was both damp and dangerous, Stewart took the opportunity to make hay. When he is on song, there are few more punishing batsmen in England, and he confirmed that yesterday when he savaged Franklyn Rose with an array of scintillating cut shots.

He did not always have things his own way, however, and just before lunch, following the West Indies declaration, there was a big appeal for a catch behind. It was not the only let-off and he was later dropped on 72 by Ambrose at mid-off when he tried to loft the leg-spinner, Dinanath Ramnarine, over the top.

It was the kind of fortune that eluded Stewart's Surrey colleague Mark Butcher. Following Atherton to the crease, Butcher collected his second duck of the match after he apparently edged Ambrose to the wicketkeeper, Junior Murray.

After his vital but modest role in the victory in Trinidad, the Surrey left-hander has been found wanting. In nine Test innings here, he has not once passed 30, a record that hardly behoves that of a No 3, a problem position England will have to address immediately if they are ever going to compete against the best sides in world cricket.

The prime candidate, presuming Graham Thorpe does not want the job, is probably Nasser Hussain. He joined a now rampant Stewart and played some fine strokes himself, especially off the spinners who were deftly swept and cut.

When the pair had added 78 for the third wicket, however, Stewart, pushing forward to Hooper, was caught by Philo Wallace at silly point. Yet, instead of collapsing further, England held firm, with both Hussain and Thorpe batting out the remainder of the session. The England vice-captain passed fifty for only the second time in the series.

Earlier, when the West Indies added to their overnight score of 451 for 5, it had been Hooper, cruising to his century, who had seen West Indies to their vast first-innings lead.

It was a marvellous knock that almost matched Lara's for panache and power. Even so, there is still something of the flawed diamond about Hooper, and since his match-winning 94 in the first of the Trinidad Tests, his has been a shadowy presence rather than the dominant figure seen here, a role his skipper will be hoping for again today, though this time with ball rather than bat.

St John's scoreboard

Fourth day; West Indies won toss

ENGLAND - First Innings 127 (D Ramnarine 4-29).

WEST INDIES - First innings

(Overnight: 451 for 5)

C L Hooper not out 108

215 min, 150 balls, 17 fours

J R Murray c Hussain b Headley 4

13 min, 9 balls, 1 four

F A Rose lbw b Caddick 2

17 min, 8 balls

C E L Ambrose not out 19

31 min, 23 balls, 1 four, 1 six

Extras (lb14, nb18) 32

Total (for 7 dec, 580 min, 131 overs) 500

Fall (cont): 6-458 (Murray), 7-465 (Rose).

Did not bat: D Ramnarine, C A Walsh.

Bowling: Caddick 26-3-111-3 (4-0-27-0, 2-0-19-0, 5-0-8-1; 5-0-21-0, 10- 3-36-2); Fraser 21-3-88-1 (4-0-20-0, 5-2-11-0, 4-0-21-0, 4-1-18-1, 3-0- 10-0, 1-0-8-0); Headley 30-4-109-2 (nb20) (8-0-34-0, 5-0-31-1, 5-1-8-0, 6-2-21-0, 6-1-15-1); Tufnell 35-6-97-0 (nb4) (14-1-42-0, 2-0-14-0, 1-0- 3-0, 7-1-18-0, 2-0-4-0, 8-4-12-0, 1-0-4-0); Ramprakash 19-0-81-1 (9-0- 28-0, 2-0-17-0, 1-0-1-1, 7-0-35-0).

Progress: 500: 579 min, 130.4 overs. Declaration: 11.07am. Hooper's 100: 202 min, 142 balls, 16 fours.

ENGLAND - Second Innings

*M A Atherton lbw b Ambrose 13

60 min, 40 balls, 1 four

A J Stewart c Wallace b Hooper 79

173 min, 132 balls, 9 fours

M A Butcher c Murray b Ambrose 0

8 min, 6 balls

N Hussain not out 54

211 min, 199 balls, 6 fours

G P Thorpe not out 18

107 min, 103 balls, 1 four

Extras (b2, lb2, nb5) 9

Total (for 3, 281 min, 79 overs) 173

Fall: 1-45 (Atherton), 2-49 (Butcher), 3-127 (Stewart).

Bowling: Walsh 18-5-41-0 (4-0-12-0, 1-0-3-0, 3-1-5-0, 5-1-17-0); Ambrose 11-3-39-2 (nb1) (6-2-20-0, 4-1-11-2, 1-0-8-0); Rose 7-2-21-0 (nb2) (2- 0-6-0, 3-1-5-0, 2-1-10-0); Ramnarine 22-7-39-0 (nb3) (1-0-2-0, 1-0-1-0, 18-5-36-0, 2-2-0-0); Hooper 21-10-29-1 (15-5-25-1, 6-5-4-0).

Progress (fourth day): Lunch 39-0 (Atherton 13, Stewart 23) 11 overs. 50: 72 min, 16.2 overs. Rain stopped play 1.20-1.24pm 56-2 (Stewart 35, Hussain 5) 18.2 overs. 100: 142 min, 32.2 overs. Tea: 123-2 (Stewart 78, Hussain 28) 38 overs. 150: 198 min, 52 overs. Stewart's 50: 118 min, 89 balls, 4 fours. Hussain's 50: 165 min, 157 balls, 6 fours.

Umpires: S A Bucknor and C J Mitchley. TV replay umpire: P Whyte. Match referee: B N Jarman.