Hick steers England to safe haven

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England 454 West Indies 50-1

When a batsman makes 90 odd, as two of England's did in the sixth Test here yesterday, there is a sense of achievement, coupled with an irritation at not quite completing the job. And that, on a pitch that is a little too true to be good, may well be England's ultimate destiny in this riveting series.

England's third consecutive first-innings total of over 400 ought to be insurance against them finishing no worse than 2-2, but the way the West Indies launched their reply last night suggested - notwithstanding the worst umpiring decision of the summer - that it will probably be no better than 2-2 either.

Twelve months ago Devon Malcolm picked himself up after a clang on the helmet, and after a muttered: "you guys are history" demolished South Africa with a lethal spell of fast bowling. Yesterday, though, Malcolm and the new ball placed nothing other than the Gasometers in danger of demolition.

Stuart Williams smashed Malcolm three times for four off the back foot in his opening over, and after Michael Atherton had proferred a quiet word into Malcolm's ear - presumably along the lines of "try pitching it up a bit" - what few bits of green grass remained after the drought were duly incinerated by two searing cover drives.

It was a pretty large act of faith for Atherton to keep Malcolm going, but in his sixth over, it reaped unexpected dividends. Williams dropped his hands to allow a delivery to sail harmlessly into Jack Russell's gloves, and when umpire Ramaswamy raised his finger in ludicrous confirmation of an even more ludicrous appeal, the fact that Williams departed with nothing more than look of total bewilderment represented a supreme act of self-restraint.

This was not something that Curtly Ambrose managed when his frustration resulted in a petulant shove as Dominic Cork ran a single, although the key moment in Cork's innings was when he pulled a groin muscle, leaving his fitness to bowl in severe doubt. Cork had to bat with a runner - Alan Wells only just fulfilling the stipulation that a runner has to be someone who has already batted.

Ambrose's frustration was largely caused by Jack Russell and Graeme Hick, who both batted with great valour to banish the still real prospect of defeat when England resumed on 233 for 5. However, they were also aided and abetted by a West Indian performance carrying the same description as spectators occupying uncovered seats in slightly less oppressive temperatures. Half-baked.

If Atherton is mentally exhausted, then a tap on Richie Richardson's head yesterday morning would have found no one at home. With the second new ball only five overs old, it took the West Indian captain more than an hour and a half to get around to whistling up Ambrose, precisely twice the time it took him to introduce Carl Hooper's gentle floaters.

Hick and Russell were thereby well set when Ambrose arrived, as they needed to be against his sustained hostility, and if the captain's mind was out to lunch, his fielders' antennae (no fewer than six catches were put down) were definitely not functioning.

There had been one or two reservations about the merits of Hick's Trent Bridge century, but this innings was - despite a couple of lives either side of 50 - as big a testimony to his character as his unarguable ability against anything other than throat-threatening bowling.

His series might have been over after Old Trafford but for Robin Smith's injury, but England's long-term investment may now be about to start paying out in national lottery terms rather than a small rattle from a one-armed bandit.

Hick's new found self-belief (and that, for all his tenuous claims that is has never left him, is what it is) ought not to have suffered by getting out, undeservedly four short of what would have been his fourth Test century, shortly before lunch.

This was the second time that Kenneth Benjamin has dismissed him in a Test match for 96 (the other was in Jamaica two years ago) and both have been to an edge to second slip.

Russell also fell agonisingly close to what would have been his second Test hundred, bowled by Ambrose after batting almost five hours for his 91. Russell should have been out for 42 when Shivnarine Chanderpaul spilled a routine chance, but, like Hick's, it was an innings that deserved three figures.

A more orthodox technique for Russell merely means that he is no longer totally off the wall, but the loss off his job to Alec Stewart led him to hours of dedication in the nets, and the hard work has brought its rewards.

As for the rest of England's batting, Mike Watkinson - dropped three times - became Courtney Walsh's 300th Test victim after a staggeringly inept 13, while Devon Malcolm, master of the staggeringly inept nought, clubbed a hugely entertaining 10.

n Curtly Ambrose, the West Indian fast bowler, was last night cleared of deliberately pushing Dominic Cork after a meeting with match referee John Reid.

The Oval scoreboard

(Second day of five; England won toss)

ENGLAND - First Innings

(Overnight: 233 for 5)

G A Hick c Williams b Benjamin 96

(248 min, 163 balls, 12 fours)

R C Russell b Ambrose 91

(292 min, 163 balls, 12 four)

M Watkinson c Browne b Walsh 13

(62 min, 55 balls)

D G Cork b Ambrose 33

(107 min, 63 balls, 3 fours)

A R C Fraser not out 10

(56 min, 35 balls)

D E Malcolm c Lara b Benjamin 10

(7 min, 7 balls, 2 fours)

Extras (b15, lb11, nb15) 41

Total (677 min, 159 overs) 454

Fall (cont): 6-336 (Hick), 7-372 (Watkinson), 8-419 (Russell), 9-443 (Cork).

Bowling: Ambrose 42-10-96-5 (nb4) (8-1-21-1, 8-1-26-0, 7-4-5-2, 10-1- 20-0, 9-3-24-2); Walsh 32-6-84-1 (nb5) (6-1-14-0, 8-2-17-0, 8-2-28-0, 10-1-25-1); Benjamin 27-6-81-3 (nb4) (11-3-30-1, 4-1-16-0, 10-2-25-1, 2-0-10-1); Bishop 35-5-111-0 (nb8) (6-2-14-0, 10-2-28-0, 8-0-32-0, 11-1-37-0); Hooper 23- 7-56-1 (9-5-10-1 7-2-24-0 7-0-22-0).

Progress: 250: 401 min, 95 overs. 300: 448 min, 106.4 overs. 350: 528 min, 126.4 overs. 400: 592 min, 144.4 overs. 450: 673 min, 158.2 overs. Hick's 50: 152 min, 88 balls, 8 fours. Russell's 50: 176 min, 141 balls, 9 fours.

WEST INDIES - First Innings

S C Williams c Russell b Malcolm 30

(47 min, 40 balls, 7 fours)

S L Campbell not out 17

(58 min, 32 balls, 4 fours)

K C G Benjamin not out 2

(9 min, 6 balls)

Extras (lb1) 1

Total (for 1, 58 min, 13 overs) 50

Fall: 1-40 (Williams). To bat: B C Lara, *R B Richardson, C L Hooper, S Chanderpaul, C O Browne, I R Bishop, C E L Ambrose, C A Walsh.

Bowling: Malcolm 7-2-31-1; Fraser 5-3-10-0; Watkinson 1-0-8-0 (one spell each).

Progress: 50: 56 min, 12.4 overs.

Umpires: D R Shepherd and V K Ramaswamy.