England in unfamiliar territory

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The Independent Online

Cricket Correspondent

It is not often that England manage to send an opponent to the canvas this early in a Test series, and we are now about to find out whether their newly found aggression at Lord's extends to putting the boot in while the West Indies are still down.

When it comes to stringing victories together in the past 10 years or so, the relevant phrase for England is one on the trot. Not since they beat Australia in the fifth and sixth Tests in 1985 have they recorded two consecutive wins against the same opposition in a home series, but rarely have they looked more capable of doing so than they do at the moment.

After two decades of being the fox in Test match cricket's hen coop, the West Indies are not used to having their own feathers plucked, and after arriving here with a nasty hangover from the Australian series, the discovery that England has not turned out to be the equivalent of booking into a health farm may have come as a further jolt to the system.

There are reports of internal bickering, Winston Benjamin has been sent home for disciplinary reasons, they have arrived at Edgbaston on the back of an innings defeat by Sussex, and their captain, Richie Richardson, currently has the sparkling eyes of a three-day-old cod.

Richardson and Michael Atherton have both led their countries 20 times, but while Atherton's batting average of 34 as a private compares with 46 as a captain, Richardson's has declined from 48 to 32. His batting makes him something of a spare part and, while the old firm of Greenidge and Haynes allowed for such luxuries in the past, the slung-together opening pairing of Hooper and Campbell has thus far put together partnerships of 0, 11, 6 and 15.

However, if there was a faintly bemused look about the tourists yesterday, it had less to do with their indifferent form than their first sighting of the Test pitch. It was a bit like a Mohican hair cut, all tuft in the middle, and two expanses of stubble on either side.

With the grassy bits on a seamer's length, and the bare bits on a spinner's, it is not something with which county sides will be unfamiliar, now that the Test and County Cricket Board has dropped its policy of pitches being evenly grassed all over - which certain counties regarded as a blank cheque to prepare surfaces that would have provided an a la carte meal for a herd of goats.

However, while the shaving of ends is a laudable attempt to bring spin bowling back into the equation, no one could quite recall ever having seen anything like it for a Test match. Hence the raising of eyebrows when the West Indian coach, Andy Roberts, himself a Test groundsman, was peering and prodding at it yesterday.

Raymond Illingworth once attempted to oversee this kind of surface when he was captain at Leicestershire, when he was one of a battery of spin bowlers, only to find that opposing captains would report the pitch to Lord's before they had even tossed up.

Illingworth said yesterday that far from any jiggery-pokery being involved, he had spoken to all the county groundsmen at the start of the summer with a view to producing pitches that offered more variety, and a more interesting game of cricket.

"The grass in the middle is there because it is conducive to more even bounce," Illingworth said yesterday. "And in any case it has not yet had its final cut. Test cricket also needs to encourage the spinners in the later stages of the game and, as with all pitches, you've got to see how the match goes before judging it."

Ironically, one of the best readers of a pitch English cricket has ever produced does not think that the bare ends here will do much for the slower bowlers. "It's too good a surface for that," Illingworth said, which rather suggests that Mike Watkinson's off-spin will not be required, and that he will be relegated to 12th man.

Should Illingworth turn out to be wrong, a scenario that the chairman has no previous acquaintance with, then Graeme Hick will be assigned to support his county colleague, Richard Illingworth. Hick took 5 for 18 against Leicestershire on Monday, but skittling out county cricket's most invertebrate batting line-up on a dustbowl does not make Hick a Test-match off-spinner.

Illingworth, of course, may yet decide to change the pitch, but as of last night had not succumbed to any temptation to start re-arranging the team - something he would have been forced into had Alec Stewart not declared himself fit after recently adding another purple blotch to a near permanently bruised right index finger.

Actually it was Illy who declared Stewart fit and, as Alec said at Lord's, Raymond is not the sort of chairman you start an argument with. However, one thing about listening to Illy is that the words self and doubt tend to disappear from the subconscious, and if England perform as they did at Lord's, they are more than capable of a similar result.