Cricket: Test of Atherton's future status

HISTORY may have been his academic subject at Cambridge University, but Michael Atherton is not one to dwell on the past. If he was, he might as well don his one-day gear now, for every indication is that this final match of the series at the Recreation Ground here will be a draw, and that England will lose this series 2-1.

Four years ago, there was a very good reason for that: Brian Lara. In an astonishing feat of batsmanship, Lara broke one of the longest-standing records when he broke Sir Garfield Sobers' record of 365 runs for the highest Test match score.

When one man bats for nigh on three days and makes 375 runs, there is not much time left for anyone else. Indeed, only 24 overs of the West Indies' second innings were possible after England's sole visit to the middle ended on 593, exactly the same first innings total as their opponents.

But things change, not least the people involved and, if three of England's bowlers, Angus Fraser, Andy Caddick and Phil Tufnell, have bittersweet memories of their role in history, they have not allowed Lara to dominate to the same extent on this tour as he did four years ago.

The ground has changed too, virtually beyond recognition, and little remains of the quaint ramshackle stands that witnessed the inaugural Test match here, played in 1981. For those who like to worship at shrines, this venue has also changed radically from the one where Lara played his magnum opus in 1994.

The ground was derided as a potential Test match venue only six weeks ago. Now, considering the place was a rubble-strewn construction site when England first arrived here in January, the transformation has been amazing.

Ambitious projects need luck, and apparently unseasonal rain has helped the Bermuda grass, specially imported from Miami for the outfield, to grow into a lush carpet in just over two weeks. Unless it is shorn, batsmen may find the boundary difficult to reach with ground strokes.

By contrast, the pitch is hard, bare, and sand coloured. But while it looks fairly typical of the surfaces produced here over the years, its newness may still hold the odd surprise, though a one-day game here 10 days ago apparently passed without incident. If the pitch does hold true to type, it will start slow, quicken slightly and perhaps offer some spin as the game goes on.

The key in Antigua is to bat and gain a total of around 400, or more if possible. In fact, for once, England's batsmen can be certain that they will not have to put their pads on should Lara win the toss.

The home side, more cautious than they used to be, have made two changes, recalling both Junior Murray and Franklyn Rose to their squad. Rose may not play, should the selectors prefer the leg-spin of Dinanath Ramnarine, but Murray will certainly strengthen the batting if not the keeping.

But if the West Indies will happily settle for a draw - a tactic that does not suit their style of play and one that may play into their opponents' hands - England need to win.

It may not be the mission that Michael Atherton wanted to accomplish when he agreed to continue as England's captain, but a drawn series against the West Indies in the Caribbean is still an an achievement worthy of high praise.

Despite being cruelly denied their chance of levelling the series in Barbados by the weather, the England captain was adamant that he would not be making any changes - unless some change in conditions this morning brought a sudden change of heart.

"Every Test is a Test to win," Atherton said before net practice yesterday, "so I don't see the point of changing the side just because we need to win this one. We've looked like winning most of the matches and we could quite easily have been 2-1 up ourselves, or at least 2-2." Instead, however, his side are 2-1 down - and, should England manage to win here to level the series, it may not be enough to keep their captain in charge, once he returns to England early in April.

Over his four and a half year tenure Atherton could not have given more to the job, except perhaps a smile. But that is his way, and even a position as public as that of the England captaincy should not force you to be unnatural.

Unwilling to dwell on the past, Atherton refused to look forward either, and those attempting to get the England captain to speculate over his future were once more left with that familiar image of a great survivor still clinging to power with a single bullet left in his gun. The next five days will decide whether it is has been used against his opponents or kept back for himself.

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