Sand but no beach party for England

Conditions cause concern as tourists prepare to make changes for second Test
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The Independent Online

It is said that there are 365 beaches here in Antigua, one for each day of the year. Make that 366 including the Sir Vivian Richards cricket ground. The playing area where the second Test between the West Indies and England starts today would be considered ideal were it to have the sea lapping nearby and a few donkey rides for the kids.

Unfortunately, it is not quite what is expected of the surface for an international cricket match. Fielding will be a precarious operation, if not positively dangerous, and it will be gruelling work for bowlers who will feel as though they are running through sand precisely because they are.

England had their first sight of the ground yesterday and there were mischievous rumours that the match would be moved to one of the other two cricket stadiums in this small country, the ramshackle but enduringly endearing Antigua Recreation or the cosy arena built by Sir Allen Stanford. The rumours were untrue, of course. Alan Hurst, the International Cricket Council match referee, said: "It is unsatisfactory but it is not unfit." It is possible to wonder why checks were not carried out weeks ago with the groundsman Tony Merrick, who played for Warwickshire and Kent in the late 1980s.

Fielders and bowlers will both have to go about their work gingerly but to his credit the England captain, Andrew Strauss, made no issue of the conditions yesterday. It is doubtless yet another difficulty a beleaguered team could well do without, but Strauss recognised its place in the scheme of things. "It's not in an ideal state but there are plenty more important things for us to be thinking about," he said. "If we're sensible in the way we field on it, it shouldn't provide any injuries and it's the same for both sides so we're not losing a lot of sleep."

If the conditions are not a grave concern, they may well change England's thinking on their team. Strauss could hardly have given a broader hint that changes would be made. There has been an uncomfortable suspicion all week that England might gamble by asking the team who lost so humiliatingly in Kingston last weekend to have another bash. But they seem to have concluded that if you are not going to make changes after being bowled out for 51 and losing by an innings, then you may never make them.

Strauss said: "There are definitely permutations both with the bat and the ball for us to consider. The wicket has changed quite dramatically overnight, so we're going to have to see how it is in the morning. There may well be a change but I'm not in a position to say any more than that now.

"There have been conversations over the last few days in terms of form as well. Clearly, when you're bowled out for 51 you're not playing as well as you should do and you've got to start thinking if form is an issue. I'm not going to lie to you and say it's all about the conditions but, given that we're not 100 per cent sure what the conditions will be like, we're not going to come to any rash decisions."

Ian Bell may have played his last Test for a while with Owais Shah at last coming in. One of the fast bowlers may be under threat. Jimmy Andersons' mercurial swing and Graeme Swann's steady off-spin will both be considered.

Only one Test match has been played at the Sir Vivian Richards ground before, when Australia and the West Indies drew an interrupted contest last year. Since Brett Lee's reverse swing took eight of the 15 West Indian wickets to fall, England may well be thinking along those lines.

Although Strauss said that all players are available, there are unlikely to be more than two changes. Shah for Bell and Anderson for Stephen Harmison are the more likely. The England captain confirmed that they had not considered calling up players from outside the squad. "There's a feeling of we got ourselves into this mess and we've got to get ourselves out of it."

But a mess it is in so many respects from the team to the ground. It will take a magnificent effort by the tourists to transform it.

West Indies (probable): C H Gayle (capt), D S Smith, R R Sarwan, L M P Simmons, S Chanderpaul, B P Nash, D Ramdin (wkt), J E Taylor, S J Benn, D B L Powell, F H Edwards.

England (probable): A N Cook, A J Strauss (capt), O A Shah, K P Pietersen, P D Collingwood, A Flintoff, M J Prior, S C J Broad, R J Sidebottom, J M Anderson, M S Panesar.

Umpires: D J Harper (Aus) & A L Hill (NZ).

Ground report

Wicket

Changing by the hour. With the winds and the weather the business area is likely to be slow, but may reward reverse swing. The outfield is grim as are the run-ups. The stadium is state of the art.

Antigua Weather

Today: Sunny with showers, 26C

Tomorrow: Mainly sunny, 26C

Sunday: Dry and cloudy, 27C

Monday: Cloudy, some showers, 27C

Tuesday: Scattered showers, 26C

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