Cricket: Tufnell waits to chance his arm: As England open their Caribbean tour, a bowler with a gambling spirit hopes for a turn in his fortunes. Derek Pringle talks to a spinner fighting to reclaim his Test place

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NOW THAT they have the sun on their backs, many England players appear to be positively relishing their twice-daily practice sessions. None the less, there comes a point when practice, however intense, cannot replace the real thing. No matter how weak the opposition appear - and today's game against an Antigua XI is unlikely to be especially testing - the mental discipline involved in a proper match provides the only reliable yardstick of current form. Unfortunately, though, one of the players the selectors would most like to watch is not playing today.

Phil Tufnell is recovering from an injured shoulder. 'It was a niggle I had in Portugal,' he said. 'Doing nothing over Christmas meant that the first few throws out here hurt quite a bit. It wasn't too much of a bother bowling, but I didn't want to keep namby-pambying it in underarm to the keeper when we were fielding. So I wanted it sorted, right from the start.'

This has meant a cortisone injection and an intensive regime of daily physiotherapy - a response sufficiently radical to suggest that England are keen to get Tufnell involved in the action as soon as possible.

If they are - and Atherton has promised a commitment to spin - it flies in the face of England's previous tactics here. Under Gooch, a much-criticised seam-only policy came close to toppling the world champions of Test cricket.

Outside the Caribbean, the West Indians have been at their least invincible against spin. Over the past decade, almost all of the West Indies' defeats have been precipitated by spinners turning the ball away from the right-hander. Tufnell has first- hand experience of this, having wreaked havoc among the West Indians with a match-winning 6 for 25 at The Oval in 1991. On that occasion, death by crazy calypso, when a compromise of sensible graft was called for, once again proved the West Indies' undoing. The question is, can he do it again, here in the West Indies?

Given that the last time that spin dominated a match in the Caribbean was 20 years ago, when Tony Greig took 13 for 156 in Port of Spain, Tufnell's prospects of even playing in all the Tests are by no means assured. None the less, he is optimistic. 'I haven't got any specific goals,' he says. 'I just want to be involved.'

The slowest and least predictable pitches in the Test series are the first two. If Tufnell is to play a leading role in the series, therefore, he must do so from the opening scenes. Perhaps this explains the almost indecent haste with which his shoulder has been pumped full of steroid.

Given his rollercoaster Test career of highs and lows, Tufnell is philosophical about his prospects. 'I'm still here. They don't call me the Cat for nothing. I know you can feel this and that about the past and the future. But you've still got to do it.'

What Tufnell has to do in this series is something that may not come easily to him. He is not a big tweaker of the ball: his forte is varying his flight and pace, and he tends to come into his own on flat pitches with large boundaries, like The Oval or Lord's, where he can indulge the gambling instincts which are central to his make-up as a spinner. The grounds here, however, are small: 'The one here in Antigua is tiny,' he says. 'It's no wonder Viv (Richards) got the fastest Test hundred there. He just kept smacking Ernie (John Emburey) out of the park.' This calls for spin bowling based on the cut-your-losses school of gambling, to which Tufnell, an all-or-nothing man, simply does not belong. This lack of caution has, in the past, set Tufnell at variance with both Gatting and Gooch, with whom he has had more than just the odd verbal exchange, on the field and off.

Beneath the sussed, streetwise exterior, he is a sensitive soul who needs careful handling: not unlike Ray East, an old Essex team-mate of Keith Fletcher's. If handled well, bowlers like Tufnell and East become matchwinners - as Tufnell proved in the first Test against New Zealand in 1992. They need to transcend their fragilities, however, and touring the West Indies is not for the faint-hearted. This could be the biggest problem that Tufnell faces. Apart from having an intense fear of flying he tends to allow small gripes to get on top of him. However, his teammates are hoping that, when things get tough, he will respond rather more positively to Atherton (a contemporary) than he did to the more paternal Gooch.

Tufnell now knows what it takes to compete against the best in the world. If he can get his mind and his shoulder right, there is no doubt that England should benefit from the sight of Phil Tufnell with ball rather than pina colada in hand. As his Middlesex colleague John Emburey would say, 'Be lucky, son. Be lucky.'

(Photograph omitted)