Sorry England back on the road to ruin

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England 147 West Indies 104-1

"It's all about how much stomach you've got for the fight," Michael Atherton said in his pre-match oratory, hoping, as at Lord's, for a girth of Gatting-like proportions. Sadly, in terms of the amount of stomach on view yesterday, England performed as though they had been kitted out in panty-girdles.

The kind of attire normally worn by overweight females is also appropriate in terms of the position England now find themselves in after the opening day of this third Test match. If the fat lady is not already singing, she is certainly clearing her throat.

After Lord's, it was a rare case of England expects rather than England keeps its fingers crossed, but 147 all out in 44.2 overs was a throwback to the blackwash days of the 1980s. The pitch was far from suitable for Test cricket, but not half as unsuitable as most of England's batting and, in identical conditions, the West Indies are within 44 runs of a first-innings lead with nine wickets in hand.

There have been more talked-about Test pitches than this one, but not before a ball was bowled on it, and by no means the least curious aspect is that it was England who asked for the grass to be left on on the West Indian fast bowlers' traditional length. It was the equivalent of Raymond Illingworth telephoning his tailor and giving him Curtly Ambrose's measurements.

What England's total might have been had Ambrose not been forced to leave the field with a groin strain in mid-morning scarcely bears thinking about although, even if Ambrose is unable to bowl again in the match, England may themselves be down to 10 batsmen after Jason Gallian marked his Test match debut by cracking a finger on his right hand.

Furthermore, even if the shaven areas at either end turn out to help the spinners (unlikely given England's decision to omit Mike Watkinson) England are likely to be beyond help by the time the fourth and fifth days come around. If indeed they come around at all. In fact, the only scheduled rest day of the series may only be relevant in terms of a headstone. Here lie England, Rest In Peace.

The excuse for England's palsied batting is that, with the middle strip of grass being patchy and tufted rather than uniformly hirsute (more of a Boycott thatch than a Botham) the bounce was decidedly untrustworthy. In such circumstances, it is difficult to bat without grave suspicion, and England batted like men convinced that the next delivery would turn out to be a hand grenade.

Only Graham Thorpe can be fully absolved, fending to gully via thumb and bat handle when a ball from Ambrose climbed towards his throat, but there were nine other cases of self destruction, and one failed suicide when Peter Martin hooked a no-ball down fine leg's throat.

England made a decent enough start, 4 for 0 after zero balls when Ambrose's opening bouncer sailed over the wicketkeeper's head, but when Atherton reached a good foot outside his off stump to thin edge Ambrose's fourth delivery, it set the pattern for the innings.

Graeme Hick, normally one of the luckier batsmen when a dropped catch is going, seemed to have got away with a limp prod at Courtney Walsh when Carl Hooper panned out a routine chance at second slip, only for Richie Richardson to pick up the rebound.

Following Thorpe's dismissal, England were 62 for 3 when Ambrose pulled up lame in his follow-through, but instead of cashing in on this unexpected bonus, they continued to bat as though they had just lurched from a sponsored hospitality box.

Alec Stewart's airy waft at Kenneth Benjamin saw him off, lbw, five minutes before lunch, and one ball after sustaining the blow which snapped his digit, Gallian chopped on to the same bowler with a stroke that suggested he had also fractured several of his toes.

By comparison, Dominic Cork's footwork was that of a man on castors. It is also hard to see him translating into a Test- class all-rounder with a backlift pointing towards fine leg and a stance so foetal that it was presumably gleaned from perusing a Mothercare pamphlet rather than a coaching manual.

Crass shot of the day, however, albeit by a short head from an impressive field, went to Darren Gough. With England 124 for 7, and their last recognised batsman Robin Smith on 30 not out at the other end, Gough thrashed a wide one straight to square cover, and is now in danger of acting out the role he feels is expected of him, rather than the one most relevant to the situation.

Smith, having been one of the few to play each ball on its merits, then got out in near identical fashion looking for the boundary to give him his half-century, and he at least had the decency to give himself an equally hard whack with the bat on his way back to the pavilion.

All that remained was for Peter Martin to jab a wide ball from Walsh to third slip, and Richard Illingworth to lose his middle stump to Bishop in mid smear. Had the West Indian over-rate not been so chronic, England would have been all out shortly after lunch rather than shortly before tea.

England might still have ended the day wounded rather than on a life support machine, but with Carl Hooper and Sherwin Campbell putting on 73 for the first wicket before Hooper gloved a leg-side catch off Cork, it was an ideal platform for Brian Lara on his adopted ground. Sometime in this series Lara is going to make a big one, and if it happens to be today, it's thank you and goodnight.

Tony Cozier, County cricket, page 28