England sniff Test victory after three vital wickets

England 566-9 & 221-8 West Indies 285 & 143-3

Sometime today, barring rain, heroic rearguard action, economic collapse or pitch subsidence, England will win the third Test. Considering precedence and an uncertain world none of these interventions should be entirely dismissed but the tourists last night were touching victory at the Antigua Recreation Ground.

After being set 503 to win, a target less attainable than Marilyn Monroe was to a generation of men, West Indies were 143 for three by the close of the fourth day. To retain the remotest hope of securing the draw and keeping their 1-0 lead in the series intact they must show considerably more durability than they have so far in the match.

At the crease they have their two most formidable batsmen in Ramnaresh Sarwan and Shivnarine Chanderpaul and the Guyanese pair were showing few signs of being easily prised from it last night. England will be anxious to make an early incision and will be equally fretful about having their all-rounder Andrew Flintoff able to bowl. He took to the field but is carrying a hip injury which needed an anti-inflammatory injection. Still, it would hardly be a Test if there were not concern’s about Fred’s fitness.

There is, as they say, weather about. It is accompanied by a febrile atmosphere on the island provoked by the calling of a General Election and the apparent run on the Bank of Antigua after charges of fraud were laid against the financier Allen Stanford, who has various business interests in Antigua.

All this has added to the unreal feeling which has pervaded the match since it was so swiftly convened following the abandonment after 10 balls of the second Test at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium last Friday when the outfield was declared unfit for cricket. England, to their credit, have so far refused to be influenced by external factors. They simply could not afford to be affected by anything other than what was going on out in the middle. In the jargon, they call it controlling the controllables.

From the moment the West Indies captain Chris Gayle invited England to bat on the first morning his side have been struggling. The simple truth is that they fell for the publicity as easily as a gullible punter being lured by promises of the easy life.

It was Gayle’s misfortune that his counterpart, Andrew Strauss, called incorrectly. Had Strauss not done so, he would have put the West Indies in. The consensus was that the pitch would be at best sporting and at worst a minefield because it had taken only 36 hours to prepare the ARG, which has been used mostly for football in recent years.

But this was to ignore history, which is always a perilous exercise. The pitch at this endearing ground has always played like a motorway rather than a cabbage patch. England made a monumental total of 566 (though it was only the fourth highest by a side batting first in the 22 Tests to have been played at the ground).

The pitch, despite having the halfway line of the football pitch running across it around the back of a fast bowler’s length, has played like it did in the good old days. Over four days, probably stretching into five, it has resolutely refused to display signs of wear and tear. There is something there for all bowlers but they have had to dig deep to find it.

England made no concessions in their grim resolve to draw level heading for Barbados tomorrow. They were diligent rather than swashbuckling in taking their lead to 502 but they had to balance using time and scoring runs. By the time England declared at 221 for 8 with precisely half the day left they led by 502. This was obviously seen as a psychologically intimidating figure.

It meant that West Indies required 85 runs more than had ever been scored before to win a Test match. But since that is a record that the West Indies hold and since it was set at the Antigua Recreation Ground – 418 against Australia six years ago – Strauss’s caution was both understandable and forgivable.

All England had to do was extend their lead. This was quite as simple as it sounded. The zest appeared to have left West Indies’ cricket together with Allen Stanford. The fielding was generally sloppy, the bowling was not particularly rigorous.

The tourists took a little while to gain their momentum in the morning, which did not elicit much sympathy from the crowd. Attendance was down. Many England supporters had already left for home. The number of local supporters was also reduced.

Nightwatchman James Anderson, performing the role for the second time in the match, hung around in the morning without much attempt at acceleration. Alastair Cook, too, was bent more on consolidation than speed.

Cook went soon after lunch for a stately 58. It was the 10th time in his last 26 innings that he had reached 50 without making a hundred – and he has already confessed to concerns about the failure to convert. As he entered the dressing room there are those who swear they saw a monkey clinging to his back.

More impetus was injected as the innings went by, especially by Paul Collingwood, though Flintoff suffered his third pair in Tests. He will not mind if he can help to secure a crucial victory today.

Shot of the day

Paul Collingwood’s huge heave across the line which brought his dismissal was selfless in its intent and exhibited his flourishing self-confidence as he outscored Kevin Pietersen once more. The result mattered not.

Ball of the day

On a windy day which made it difficult for bowlers it was heartening to see the left-arm spinner Sulieman Benn at last take a wicket when he got Kevin Pietersen out attempting a switch-hit after 39 wicketless first innings overs.

Moment of the day

Poor Andrew Flintoff came in at No 9 in the order after receiving an anti-flammatory injection in a hip injury and just nine balls later registered his third pair in Test cricket when he struck a full toss to mid-wicket.