Time to quench England's thirst

SIXTH TEST: Atherton's men seek end to major series drought while West Indies fear the reaction if their inspiration dries up
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The Independent Online

Cricket Correspondent

There are any number of age old recipes for making it rain, but heaven forbid that the best-known of all - organise a game of cricket - interferes with the final act of the most absorbing Test match summer of the past decade.

With the end of England's major series drought tantalisingly in reach, an end to the meteorological one during the next five days would be unbearably perverse.

There was a spot of light drizzle at The Oval yesterday and if, metaphorically speaking, into every life a little rain must fall, then it is Richie Richardson rather than Michael Atherton who is currently huddled underneath the umbrella.

While England can expect nothing worse than bad luck notices if they should fall at the final hurdle, the West Indies might seriously consider asking for political asylum.

As Atherton, looking suitably relaxed after receiving Raymond Illingworth's winter endorsement, put it yesterday: "The pressure is more on them. There is only glory at stake for us, and if we lose - well, we will only be doing what other sides have done [against the West Indies] for the past 20 years."

One side which has not, of course, is Australia, and the memory of that series in the Caribbean may be too fresh for the West Indies to lose this one without nipping into a fancy dress shop for a set of false beards and dark glasses before boarding the flight home.

If England's public is slightly more forgiving in times of crisis, it is probably because defeat is easier to live with when you are used to it. The safety valve here is a trip to the local for a good old "hang the lot of them" moan, and if England should now beat the side acknowledged as the best in the world for two decades, it might put an end to pub conversation as we know it.

In the Caribbean, however, which is a collection of separately governed islands with vastly different identities, the cricket team has been the single welding factor. They might not be quite as volatile as the Indians, who stoned Ravi Shastri's house when he made a slow 40-odd against England in the last World Cup, but defeat will make life uncomfortable enough for the West Indian cricketers for it to act as a powerful motivational factor.

They will be back to their normal complement of four fast bowlers here, although various bits of bodywork are now beginning to drop off the likes of Walsh and Ambrose, and Carl Hooper, returning after missing the Trent Bridge Test with a broken finger, resumes his opening partnership with Sherwin Campbell. Twenty-two Test matches have gone by without a three- figure partnership for the first West Indian wicket.

England, rather curiously, selected two separate teams from their 13- man squad last night. The pitch is thought to be a little slower and more receptive to spin than is usual here, but if there is high humidity this morning they will be tempted more towards the quicker bowlers than two spinners.

There are only eight certainties, the remaining five jockeying for places being Devon Malcolm, Philip Tufnell, Mike Watkinson, Mark Illott, and John Crawley. If England play six batsmen, Crawley will be at No 3 with Alan Wells making his debut at No 6. If they play five, Crawley will be left out, and Wells will come in first wicket down.

In the likely event that they pick six batsmen, the equation boils down to either two specialist spinners or one. If it is one, England appear to be leaning towards their enfant terrible, Tufnell, in which case Watkinson, for all his batting heroics at Trent Bridge, will discover that sentiment is a touch thin on the ground under Illingworth's stewardship.

Tufnell comes here on the back of his 5 for 76 in Middlesex's last match, after which his captain, Mike Gatting, gave him the following glowing testimonial. "He has not bowled as poorly as that in weeks."

Tufnell has not bowled especially well for England in recent memory either, having taken only 18 wickets at 47 runs apiece in his last seven Tests.

Malcolm may not play even if England take the three pace- bowler option - not so much because of the old doubts about him being able to hit the Gasometer from 10 paces, as a pitch less user-friendly than the one on which he put Jonty Rhodes in hospital in the first innings, and took 9 for 57 in the second.

Goodness knows what Malcolm's overall economy rate would be without The Oval, where, in four Tests, he has taken 23 wickets at an average of 22.

All 16,000 seats are taken for the first four days, and a ground twice the size may not have coped with the demand. Atherton, not normally one for overstatement, said: "It is a massive game." Richardson agreed. "If we lose, who knows what will happen to us?"

What will happen to Richie, most probably, is that he will join the small army of ticket touts outside the ground. "Anyone want an aisle seat to Antigua? I'll take face value, or a straight swap for one in the hold to the North Pole."