Battling bowlers mock predictions

Tony Cozier
Monday 22 March 2004 01:00

It was a series that would be dominated by the batsmen on slow, featureless pitches that inexperienced bowlers would be unable to cope with. The proposition was based on solid statistics.

England were served by their most reliable opening partnership in years. Both Michael Vaughan and Marcus Trescothick brought healthy averages above 40 with them.

They would be followed by a trio of proven old hands, Mark Butcher, Nasser Hussain and Graham Thorpe, with 236 Tests and almost 20,000 runs between them.

The West Indies were just back from four Tests in South Africa in which they had scored eight individual hundreds. Brian Lara was back at the top of the rankings among Test cricket's batsmen, averaging over 70 in the 12 Tests since his reinstatement as captain.

In contrast, neither team possessed a bowler with more than 100 wickets or 30 Tests to his name.

Surely it would be a runfest. But cricket, once again, has made a mockery of all the seemingly logical predictions.

Suddenly, both teams have produced bowlers of genuine pace and hostility who have been encouraged by pitches that have responded to their fire. Batting is no longer the fun it was expected to be.

Steve Harmison, of course, has been the revelation. Using his height to extract steepling bounce, he has so harassed West Indies batsmen that he has single-handedly seen to it that England are close to retaining the Wisden Trophy halfway through the series. Lara hasn't scored a run in his last two innings, Vaughan and Trescothick are yet to pass 20.

But the West Indies' attack has also been unrecognisable as the ineffective, indisciplined combination that was pummelled for two totals in excess of 600 and two more over 500 in South Africa.

The speedy and hyperactive Tino Best has given it the bite and energy it lacked in South Africa. Pedro Collins, returning after a year regaining his ability to swerve the ball into the right-handers, had added left-handed variety.

At no time in South Africa did the West Indies achieve the measure of control and purpose they did yesterday as they desperately sought to negate Harmison's second demolition job of the series.

Their fast bowlers were almost flawless in their lines and lengths. The certainty of at least one boundary ball an over had been left in South Africa.

More encouragingly, they were not dispirited by their repeated misfortune as England's total mounted slowly, but worryingly. They simply kept plugging away, knowing they would inevitably be rewarded for their perseverance.

The transformation was most noticeable in Adam Sanford, who had been no better than a club trundler in South Africa and in the first Test but who set searching questions outside off stump, especially for Hussain.

Like all the others, he repeatedly passed the outside edge by millimetres. When he found it, with his first delivery of the day to Butcher, the ball fell a foot short of first slip.

Such bad luck might have driven Sanford and his mates to distraction. Instead, they kept their focus and waited patiently for reward, even if it took a long time in coming.

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