Stage right for Croft as drama takes new turn

Third Test: West Indies dig in with a stubborn rearguard action as White spirit raises only brief hope
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They came expecting a thriller with bizarre twists on a normal Test match third day. What they witnessed was an engrossing interlude of patient plotting which could yet culminate in high drama.

They came expecting a thriller with bizarre twists on a normal Test match third day. What they witnessed was an engrossing interlude of patient plotting which could yet culminate in high drama.

If it was less spectacular than the events which saw the first two matches of this Test series end by the weekend, it restored some sanity to proceedings. The day belonged to the West Indies. As Duncan Fletcher, England's coach, said: "Today we probably faltered a little bit."

Just as the whole of England might foolishly have been starting to assume that the series, if not quite cricket itself, was coming home, the tourists stirred from the ropes.

They did not exactly come out throwing punches all the way but through some characteristically trenchant bowling and some less typically steadfast batting in their second innings they jabbed themselves painstakingly back into the contest. The last seven England wickets fell for 107 runs and West Indies then responded with 131 for 1 after registering the highest opening partnership of the series. They are 15 behind and anything, as it usually is with these sides, is possible.

Early wickets for England - and their off-spinner Robert Croft can make a name for himself on a pitch giving him turn from the bowlers' footmarks - would tilt match, series and summer their way. If West Indies reduce the deficit quickly and Wavell Hinds and Brian Lara - who is probably set to remake his name yet again - perform as they can, their renaissance will have turned another corner.

At the start of the day, the advantage was with England. The mood was as bright as it has been for years. The reverie lasted until the second ball. All the analysis of the previous day's play had been of a well-rounded partnership born in adversity, of Alec Stewart's splendour, of Marcus Trescothick's maturity. The nation was still digesting this and doubtless anticipating some more of the same when Stewart, having watched the first ball swing away, pushed at one not much closer to him and was caught behind.

The ovation to which Stewart departed was hardly less rapturous than that which had greeted his century. The crowd, not yet at capacity because it was a grey morning, stood as one. All hail Alec Stewart, the Queen Mother of cricket. The former captain had played an innings of inordinate quality which had lasted for 157 balls spread over three hours.

He took the attack to the opposition when they can least have expected it with England at 17 for 3. If there was a risk in doing so, Stewart, at 37, recognised that he was in the form of his life and that such periods must not be squandered. When he and Trescothick were in harness they did no more than play the line of the ball.

It was an object lesson in rebuffing the received wisdom that significant foot movement is imperative. This was Stewart's 14th Test hundred in his 100th Test and strides tohim are something you wear rather than take forward while batting.

For a few overs after Stewart's departure, Trescothick waited, playing only when necessary, as he had so admirably earlier on. But he was deceived by a slower one from Courtney Walsh, stuck in the crease and bowled. It had been a stay marked as much by its mental fortitude as its clean strokeplay, but both are to be commended in a player.

Thus, England were 2 for 2 on the day with the advantage discernible but not sizeable. It was the sort of position -198 for 5 - from which they have often caved in. Craig White did not hang around for long but what followed embodied England's advance, small but significant.

Dominic Cork and Michael Vaughan accumulated runs keenly, running singles, putting the West Indies fielders under more pressure than they would have liked. Cork was the flashier, naturally, and his square drive off Reon King produced the first boundary of the day in its 19th over.

West Indies, led by the admirable Ambrose, bowled resolutely but they were largely ragged in the field. They perplexed their captain, Jimmy Adams, and neither of the elder statesmen, Walsh and Ambrose, looked entirely suited. In one over Adrian Griffith made a porridge of fielding at point, allowing three when a single should have been the sum of things, and then Adams himself stepped over one.

Shortly before lunch, the seventh-wicket partnership of 41 ended when Cork edged one he could have left. Vaughan, having survived a desperately close appeal to the Walsh slower ball, patented long ago but now in its refined era, pushed forward to Ambrose and was conventionally caught at slip. The Yorkshireman had vigilantly faced 100 balls. It was the least remarked on century of the week but more significant than some. Robert Croft blazed merrily away for a while and England had a lead they might have settled for at the start.

For once, the opening West Indies pair did not surrender a wicket to the new ball. They were marginally assisted because Andrew Caddick's initial burst of two overs - he was taken off immediately - were all looseners. Caddick can be maddening on occasions like this but it would be as well to remember what a bowler he is.

Not that Sherwin Campbell and Griffith looked like a pair who had put on 276 for the first wicket in Hamilton last December. Griffith clipped Cork in the air to short midwicket and was fortunate that it did not travel as far as Nasser Hussain. It would have been a difficult chance but Hussain eats those for breakfast.

Croft was on as early as the 11th over, presumably to justify his selection. He immediately claimed a catch at short point when Campbell botched his defensive stroke. It hit his pad first and umpire Doug Cowie decided it had not hit the bat.

Cowie was probably correct but the New Zealander has had an indifferent Test, calling three decisions wrongly. There was another, more contentious shout when Campbell might have steered Caddick down the leg side when he had reached 33. Cowie again shook his head.

The call for two neutrals will eventually become irrepressible but before it happens the standard all round will have to rise along with the use of gizmos. And they do not always give a clear judgement either.

England retained their attacking fields but were never as threatening as they suggested. Campbell and Griffith went past the 80 they shared at Lord's, the highest partnership of the series until now, and Wavell Hinds played some splendidly robust shots late on. It is anybody's match, anybody's series and it is some summer.

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