England's old guard forced to dig deep

West Indies 208 England 300-6
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The Independent Online

The cricket wasn't pretty, but it rarely is in the land of calypso. The pitch at the Queen's Park Oval seldom promotes scintillating contests. It prefers tough, attritional encounters that test the desire, discipline, patience and fitness of those taking part.

These were the characteristics Mark Butcher, Nasser Hussain and Graham Thorpe needed to show on the third day of the second Test. On a surface which is becoming ever harder to bat on, England's three most experienced players had to scrap for every run they scored.

But scrap they did. When bad light stopped play they had given their side a valuable lead of 92.

Each scored dogged a half-century but it is the presence of Thorpe and the redoubtable Ashley Giles, who have added 70 for the seventh wicket, that gives Michael Vaughan's side an excellent chance of moving 2-0 up in this four-Test series. By reaching 300 for 6 the visitors are already in a strong position but England would not want to be chasing more than 150.

Andrew Flintoff chipped in with a breezy 23 before he gave Dwayne Smith his first Test wicket, but it was Thorpe's innings that was the classiest of the day. Although his first scoring stroke was a top-edged pull over the slips it was this shot that proved to be the most productive in his repertoire. But Thorpe benefitted enormously from the graft of his team-mates earlier in the day. Their occupation of the crease, when the West Indian bowlers were fresh and at their best, tired Brian Lara's attack out and made batting more comfortable in the evening.

The fact that Butcher, Hussain and Thorpe have all played Test cricket in Trinidad before is a considerable help to England. Each knows how to bat here and is aware that it is not how you look that counts but the number of runs on the scoreboard.

All three spent valuable time at the crease in the two Tests here in 1998. In the first, Hussain spent almost seven hours collecting the 83 runs he scored in the game. In the second, it took England 108 overs to score 225 for victory. Butcher spent two and a quarter hours compiling an unbeaten 24, Thorpe four hours over his 51.

Both sides knew that whoever dominated the day would have a great chance of winning this Test. The scoring rate in the morning may have made it difficult for Sky's production team to deliver an exciting highlights package in the lunch break, but this was good, hard Test cricket. And the partnership of 120 between Butcher and Hussain was just what England needed after losing both openers for eight runs on Saturday.

It is situations like this that appear to bring out the best in this pair. Neither has the power or the range of stroke to take a bowling attack apart, and each would have got a perverse sort of pleasure from their time in the middle. When the pitch is flat and good for batting, scoring runs becomes less of a challenge. But the satisfaction of adding important runs in difficult circumstances is immense.

Hussain scored one run in the first 48 minutes of play but this failed to concern the veteran. It would be wrong to say they then came in a rush and the 35-year-old had to wait a further 37 minutes before he found the middle of his bat with an exquisite cover drive for four.

Butcher looked far more comfortable and timed the ball well from the start but the slow outfield failed to give him full value for his shots. He was the first to reach his fifty when he guided his 142nd delivery for a single down to fine-leg.

Since the retirement of Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh, the West Indies bowling attack has been heavily criticised for lack of discipline. This charge, however, could not be aimed at Lara's bowlers here. The home team's attack bowled with control and skill and beat the outside edge on countless occasions.

This bowling was high-class and England could have lost five or six wickets during the morning session. That they did not was down to a combination of good luck and good batting.

This did not worry Butcher and Hussain. Each play-and-miss was greeted with nothing more than a shrug and a wry smile. In circumstances like this it is vital for a batsman to forget the previous delivery and concentrate on the next because time spent worrying about what has taken place can affect how you play the next ball.

Butcher had reached 61 when his luck finally ran out. The left-hander did not appear happy to be given out caught behind. though television replays were inconclusive. The enthusiasm of Tino Best may have won him the appeal.

And it was the pace of Best which eventually broke through Hussain's defence when he had reached 58. The half-century of the former England captain required more than four and a half hours of concentration and it was brought to an end by the second new ball.

Before producing the superb nip-backer that ripped through Hussain, the fast bowler had bowled a delivery straight at Chris Gayle standing at first slip. He also let slip a beamer which struck Thorpe painfully on the hand.