Tourists forget the importance of first day's play

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The Independent Online

At his pre-match conference, Brian Lara identified the West Indies' frequent first-day flops as a problem they had to overcome to prevent their domination by England. It was, he noted, "pretty straightforward" what his players needed to understand.

"The first day is very, very important," he said. "We have to start in front, to show the way, and defend that position. We don't want to be coming from behind the eight-ball every time." It was, he noted, to be the main focus at the team meeting.

"Hopefully we're going to see that come to fruition tomorrow," was the parting comment. He was to be disappointed yet again, despite heartening performances by two of his young charges - Sylvester Joseph, on debut, and Dwayne Bravo - and the familiar reliability of Shivnarine Chanderpaul.

Lara was bold enough to bat on winning the toss, a reverse of the decision that cost him so heavily in the first Test at Lord's. It would have been more understandable had he bowled. The sky was grey, heavy overnight rain delayed the start by an hour, conditions were humid and the pitch carried more of a green tinge than at Lord's. But batting is the West Indies' strength and, even with a new opening batsman in Joseph, it was the only logical decision.

By mid-afternoon, with Joseph batting with the aplomb of a veteran, Ramnaresh Sarwan well entrenched and the partnership worth 75, a hard afternoon lay ahead for England. A matter of 35 minutes demonstrated the difference between a confident, well-balanced team and one so uncertain it finds it difficult to seize the moment.

Suddenly, Sarwan offered a loose drive at Andrew Flintoff and dragged an ordinary ball back into his stumps, as he had done at Edgbaston.

Lara then exposed his leg-stump and Flintoff duly hit it with a full-length delivery. It not only heightened the assertion that the West Indies captain is disconcerted by England's newest Ian Botham, but also that it is a small, penetrable, chink in the left-hander's armour. It triggered the memory of his first-ball dismissal to Craig White at The Oval four years ago.

As the reliable Chanderpaul joined Joseph, who had batted with sound judgement for two and a half hours, it was time for consolidation. But when Joseph fell to a weak shot off the lively Steven Harmison, three wickets had gone for 23 and the initiative was back with England.

Joseph's first innings in Test cricket was promising. The 25-year-old Antiguan had never opened the innings at any level but looked right for the part. He was replaced by the 20-year-old Bravo, another newcomer. After his promising debut at Lord's, his batting has not matched the quality of his medium-paced bowling and he arrived with no form to recommend him. At 108 for 4, a total of 200 loomed.

Chanderpaul's qualities have been long since established, Bravo now set about confirming his. With brave, attacking cricket the two added 147. They were 40 minutes away from the end of an opening day that would have pleased Lara.

But Bravo spoiled his notable effort with a careless stroke, Chanderpaul followed in the probing Hoggard's next over and the West Indies were behind the eight-ball once more.