England pinning their hopes on a Hick hundred

SIXTH TEST: Ambrose strikes back for West Indies to undermine half-centuries from Crawley and Thorpe
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reports from The Oval

England 233-5 v West Indies

For all their pre-match sabre-rattling, England eventually arrived at the conclusion that the West Indian castle was least likely to fall by slipping into a pair of Errol Flynn's tights and swinging in through the window on a chandelier. When it comes to trench warfare, Raymond Illingworth has a direct bloodline to Field Marshall Haig, and yesterday's performance in the sixth Test here was all hard hats and sandbags.

This plan was apparently working nicely when England had ground their way to 192 for 3 midway through the final session, but one of the reasons the West Indies have dominated Test match cricket for the past 20 years is that just when they have apparently eased themselves into the hammock, there they are back around your windpipe.

More often than not, forensic analysis finds Curtly Ambrose's fingerprints around the jugular, and so it was again yesterday. Firstly, he had Graham Thorpe caught behind to a stroke of decidedly dodgier pedigree than had hitherto been witnessed in a high-class 74, and Alan Wells, coming out to bat at the fag end of the day in fading light, prodded his first delivery in Test cricket straight to short leg.

Graeme Hick, on 14, might have been out in Carl Hooper's next over when his sliced edge just eluded Stuart Williams at slip, and although Hick and Jack Russell have half refloated the ship, England will resume anxiously this morning at 233 for 5 on what looks ominously like a 500 pitch.

It has less pace than is usual at The Oval, which is presumably more by design than accident, although Ambrose and Courtney Walsh dredged enough life out of the new ball to make England's decision to omit Philip Tufnell (possibly gone forever) in favour of Devon Malcolm hard to argue with.

So too was England's decision to bat first, even though Michael Atherton may have had second thoughts when Ambrose's second ball crunched into his rib-cage. Whether or not this had an effect on Jason Gallian, at no stage did he ever threaten to achieve any score other than nought, and he finally snicked his eighth delivery to Carl Hooper at first slip.

Atherton, on 11, almost gave a catch off Walsh to Richie Richardson at backward square leg, and the hopping around at the crease was only matched by the same kind of activity at the turnstiles. By the time the last few thousand spectators had squeezed their way into the ground, most of the drama had subsided.

Atherton was second out at 60, edging a ball from Kenneth Benjamin that was wide enough to have ignored, at which point England's graph steadily began to climb as John Crawley and Thorpe took England safely through from two overs before lunch until the over after tea.

Crawley's sponsored car would not have been too far behind Tufnell's out of the gate had England opted for only five batsmen, although Crawley coped admirably well with the pressure, and went on to make his third Test 50 until he got himself out to the first ball he faced after tea.

He doubtless re-emerged with the intention of playing himself back in, but the delivery from Hooper, which floated in such a gentle parabola that the ball appeared to be attached to a parachute, was too much to resist, and he pinged it straight to Richardson at cover. Crawley would have been tearing his hair out had he got a bit more to spare, and given that Graham Gooch has now clocked up three centuries since his transplant... well, just a thought.

It was certainly as good an opportunity as he will have to make a Test hundred, and the West Indies' frustration boiled over during a curious incident in mid-afternoon involving Walsh and the Indian umpire, V K Ramaswamy.

You can always tell when Walsh gets really agitated by the way he half raises an eyebrow, so to see him gesticulating, muttering, and snatching his hat less than courteously from the umpire's hand was something of a collector's item. He and Ramaswamy clearly failed to share the same opinion on what constituted a fair ration of short stuff, and the episode ended with both umpires scribbling in their notebooks, and Ramaswamy talking into his two-way radio.

It did not require any great sleuthing to deduce that an Indian takeaway was not being ordered, although the official line later was that Walsh had neither been warned nor reported to the match referee. Atherton, ludicrously fined for dissent on this ground 12 months ago, might have permitted himself a wry smile.

Atherton, though, knows enough about the West Indies to permit himself no kind of smile when things are apparently going well, and, sure enough, Ambrose altered the entire complexion of the day with those two wickets in his third spell from the Vauxhall End.

Thorpe, who had batted for three and a half hours, has now made 14 half- centuries and two centuries since his introduction to Test cricket in the Caribbean four years ago, when his first four innings all ended with him being clean bowled while the face of the bat was pointing roughly towards square leg.

Hick also began his Test career against the West Indies, when his problem had less to do with his bat pointing to square leg, as his head pointing towards second slip. However, he has gutsed it out so far for a crucial 43 not out, and never have England wanted a century more from him than they do today.

Tony Cozier, page 23

The Oval scoreboard

(First day of five; England won toss)

ENGLAND - First Innings

*M A Atherton c Williams b Benjamin 36

(107 min, 85 balls, 3 fours)

J E R Gallian c Hooper b Ambrose 0

(12 min, 8 balls)

J P Crawley c Richardson b Hooper 50

(229 min, 159 balls, 6 fours)

G P Thorpe c Browne b Ambrose 74

(214 min, 177 balls, 9 fours)

G A Hick not out 43

(133 mins, 76 balls, 7 fours)

A P Wells c Campbell b Ambrose 0

(1 min, 1 ball)

R C Russell not out 9

(51 min, 49 balls, 1 four)

Extras (b6 lb5 nb10) 21

Total (for 5, 380 min, 90 overs) 233

Fall: 1-9 (Gallian), 2-60 (Atherton), 3-149 (Crawley), 4-192 (Thorpe), 5-192 (Wells).

To bat: M Watkinson, D G Cork, A R C Fraser, D E Malcolm.

Bowling: Ambrose 23-6-52-3 (nb1) (8-1-21-1, 8-1-26-0, 7-4-5-2); Walsh 17-4-37-0 (nb3) (6-1-14-0, 8-2-17-0, 3-1-6-0); Benjamin 15-4-46-1 (nb4) (11-3-30-1, 4-1-16-0); Bishop 19-4-53-0 (nb7) (6-2-14-0, 10-2-28-0, 3- 0-11-0); Hooper 16-7-34-1 (9-5-10-1, 7-2-24-0).

Progress: 50: 92 min, 22.3 overs. Lunch: 77 for 2 (Crawley 25, Thorpe 9) 28 overs. 100: 152 min, 36 overs. Tea: 148 for 2 (Crawley 50, Thorpe 48) 58 overs. 150: 250 min, 59.1 overs. 200: 338 min, 80.1 overs. New ball: 85 overs, 217 for 5.

Crawley 50: 212 min,144 balls, 6 fours.

Thorpe 50: 139 min, 112 balls, 5 fours.

WEST INDIES: S L Campbell, S C Williams, B C Lara, *R B Richardson, C L Hooper, S Chanderpaul, C O Browne, I R Bishop, C E L Ambrose, K C G Benjamin, C A Walsh.

Umpires: D R Shepherd and V K Ramaswamy.

TV Replay Umpire: J H Hampshire. Match Referee: J R Reid.