England sheepish in traditional defeat

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The Independent Online


reports from Headingley

England 199 and 208 West Indies 282 and 129-1 West Indies win by nine wickets

Say what you like about English cricket, but nowhere else is tradition so faithfully observed. Jacket and tie in the Lord's Long Room, Dickie Bird peering manically at his light meter, Fred Trueman not quite comprehending what is going off out there, and England getting routinely stuffed in the opening Test match of the series.

Lest we forget, the West Indian side which knocked off England by nine wickets in the equivalent of less than three days playing time arrived here as a recently beaten side, chronically short of confidence, no opening batsmen, over the hill fast bowlers, and a mentally washed-out captain.

However, when you are in this kind of disrepair there is no more potent medicine than a few games of cricket against England, who will presumably adopt their customary policy of eventually winning a Test match somewhere, but not until the series is comfortably beyond them.

The weather has almost been as foul as England themselves over the past four days, forcing Raymond Illingworth ever deeper inside his sheepskin coat, and prompting one journalist to refer to him as looking like a "Third Division football manager". Yesterday the chairman said: "I don't mind the football manager. It's the Third Division bit I object to." Illy did not make it clear whether he regarded the inference that England were Third Division was a bit harsh or unwarranted flattery.

If Illingworth needed the coat to stop him shivering, he would have presumably have worn it even in a heatwave. It is not much good, as the chairman conceded, occupying the crease against the West Indies without playing a few shots, but England's batting in this match (with the notable exception of the captain) was about as technically proficient as someone attempting to eliminate a wasp with a rolled-up newspaper.

For Illingworth, another downside of the weather came yesterday when he was grilled on television about his batsmen's lack of discipline. As his interrogator was David Gower, he presumably felt that this was a bit rich, but even Gower would have blushed at some of England's ludicrous strokeplay in this game.

While England's form graph continues its journey towards the earth's core, they are still unbeatable opposition in the interview room. "If we had got 300 in the first innings it would have been a much tighter match," was the captain's view afterwards, and this, of course, is unarguable.

If they had made 600, or 1,000, or 10,000, it would have been even closer still, and once the rules are amended to award a run for every "if" in a team's vocabulary, England will be very hard to beat indeed. Illingworth's comment that England "have got to improve" was a similarly impressive entry in the stating the obvious category.

However, it is fatuous to suggest that England were wholly responsible for their own downfall, in that the West Indies' attack was always dangerous on a pitch that bounced extravagantly at times and is a far more dangerous unit than Australia encountered earlier in the year now that Ian Bishop is available again.

With Bishop back in the side, Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose (who took his 100th wicket in 19 Tests against England when he rearranged Devon Malcolm's stumps) now have someone with whom to share the workload, and Bishop - named man of the match here - also has the priceless ability to move the ball around at dangerous speeds.

England also got a couple of things right in selection, in that Peter Martin and Richard Illingworth both turned in decent bowling performances, but the selectors may not be in much of a self-congratulatory mood over the experiment of opening the batting with Robin Smith, asking Alec Stewart to combine two specialist roles, and preferring Malcolm to Angus Fraser on Thursday morning.

After England's second innings finally expired for 208 in mid-afternoon, leaving the West Indies to make 126 to win, Malcolm was deemed too expensive to risk with the new ball, and was put out to grass while Martin, Illingworth and Phillip DeFreitas nagged away with good old-fashioned English line and length. This was so effective that the West Indies could only crawl to 70 off 11 overs by tea, and eventually required no less than 19 overs to make their 126.

This was for the loss of Sherwin Campbell, brilliantly caught by Mike Atherton at third slip, but Carl Hooper and Brian Lara were in such rampant form that no one could bowl to them. Hooper's 74 came from only 72 deliveries, and 60 of them - including four sixes - came in boundaries.

England led by only 26 with six wickets in hand when play resumed an hour late yesterday, and it required a long partnership between Graham Thorpe and Mark Ramprakash. Sadly, Ramprakash was out cheaply for the second time in the game and now averages only 19.25 in his 16 Test matches.

In the end, England did not come remotely close to setting the West Indies a target that might have made them nervous. What makes England nervous is that the next match is at Lord's, where they traditionally make performances like this one seem rather good.