England's ambitions flattened by Hooper

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reports from The Oval

England 454 and 39-0 West Indies 692-8 dec

If England's bowlers were grateful for anything over the weekend, it would have been that Thames Water's drought restrictions do not preclude running a hot bath. The fielders would have been pretty fresh though, as 90 fours and five sixes suggests that they spent most of their time waiting for spectators to throw the ball back.

Had Devon Malcolm been unwise enough to repeat last year's Oval warning - "you guys are history" - he would have been spot on. The West Indies' 692 for 8 in the sixth Test yesterday entered the history books as the highest total England have ever haemorrhaged against this opposition, although if ever there was a ground for mitigation, it is this particular ground.

The Oval has featured three times in the list of seven Test match totals over 700, and this would have been four out of eight had Richie Richardson not declared when he did. However, it will require one of England's higher grade cock-ups for this Test to produce a result, and the only thing flatter than the pitch will be the final day atmosphere. It will be a shame if this series ends with a whimper, but when it came to the crunch, England could not bring themselves to grasp the nettle without first reaching for a pair of oven gloves. Wherever else in England the hosepipes have been disconnected, The Oval groundsman's tap is not among them.

If, given the make-up of the opposition attack, it was understandable that England did not want too much in the way of The Oval's traditional pace and bounce, neither did it take too much foresight to work out that 22 yards of totally lifeless turf would also amount to granting Brian Lara a licence to print runs.

Lara's breathtaking 179 on Saturday was not bad for a bloke reportedly suffering from burn-out, and five Test centuries out of seven against England is now becoming a bit personal. He also scored his runs at such a rate, that rarely - if ever - can a side have conceded nearly 700 runs before qualifying for a third new ball.

Yesterday morning, Raymond Illingworth placed his handkerchief on practice pitch and invited his bowlers to hit it - although when it came to the real thing, one or two of them would have been hard pressed to leave too many red smudges on a tablecloth. However, against batsmen of the class of Lara and Carl Hooper, it is a touch disheartening when even perfectly good balls are spanked to the boundary.

Hooper's 36th Test innings against England, and only his second century, has something to do with the fact that his genius is usually compromised by attacks of narcolepsy, and sure enough he drifted off to sleep again here.

Hooper had made only one of his 127 runs on Saturday night when he spooned a routine catch back to the bowler, and had the bowler been anyone other than Malcolm he would not have got away with it. Devon has many qualities, but hand-eye co-ordination is not among them, and it was like watching someone trying to win a fluffy toy with one of those funfair arcade mechanical grabs.

Malcolm's frustration continued when Shivnarine Chanderpaul (on 17) edged him straight between Graham Thorpe and Graeme Hick at first and second slips - who, not for the first time over the weekend, appeared to be auditioning for jobs as Buckingham Palace guardsmen.

There was not so much as a twitch from either of them, although the same could not be said of Malcolm, who scythed the air with a swinging boot in a rare display of animation. Later in the day, Test cricket's classiest exponent of the anguished kick, Angus Fraser, produced two of his career best.

On Friday, this sort of thing was revealed to be a collar-feeling offence when the International Cricket Council referee, John Reid, issued a statement describing it as "unacceptable in any circumstances." The ICC has long been a standing joke in cricket, and some of the actions of their referees have done little to impair this well deserved reputation.

One reputation currently in the embryonic stage is that of Dominic Cork taking wickets with rank deliveries, as he did when Richardson, having added only six to his overnight 87, cut a long-hop straight to backward point, and then when Chanderpaul drilled a catch to cover.

In between these two wickets, Hooper and Chanderpaul clocked up 196 runs together, and while it was mostly through effortless timing and placement, Hooper twice reminded us of his awesome power with huge sixes off Mike Watkinson and Fraser. Watkinson, England's single spin option, was quietly murdered.

Hooper's one really dicey moment was when a Malcolm bouncer rebounded several yards from the badge on his helmet, which probably prevented Hooper from taking his customary nap. On the evidence of England's serene progress to 39 for 0, staying awake might be beyond most people today.

Tony Cozier

Sunday League, page 19