August 18, 2000

Balanced on a see-saw

Leeds: The unpredictable has become the expected and the extraordinary commonplace in this series and the first day of the fourth Test yesterday was true to type.

On a pitch about which there have been contrasting opinions, 15 wickets tumbled for 277 runs, leaving the balance even.

The only certainty for the rest of the match is that it will follow the same erratic course those at Lord's and Old Trafford took.

In bright, clear sunshine, the West Indies batted on winning the toss and made the pitch appear worse than it actually was with a succession of carefree strokes that caused their downfall for an unsatisfactory 172.

They owed even that to their youngest and least experienced batsman, Ramnaresh Sarwan.

The neat, little 20-year-old right-hander arrrived 35 minutes before lunch in the middle of a familiar slump in which four left-handed wickets, among them Brian Lara and captain Jimmy Adams, vanished for ten runs in the space of 27 balls.

He carried on through to the end, two-and-a-quarter hours later, when he was unbeaten with a confident, polished 59, featuring nine eyecatching boundaries.

As they have done 'and had to do' with such frustrating frequency of late, the veterans Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh equalised the situation in the remaining 41 overs, sharing the five wickets England lost in mustering 105 by the end.

Ambrose accounted for the first two, the left-handed Marcus Trescothick and his old adversary, Michael Atherton, who succumbed to catches by Brian Lara at first slip from defensive strokes in his second and third overs, leaving England ten for two.

At the opposite end, Walsh pummelled the beleaguered England captain, Nasser Hussain, twice painfully on the right hand and repeatedly past uncertain edges in an opening spell of six overs that cost him streaky runs.

Yet he was wicketless before he returned for a peerless second spell of nine consecutive overs in which he despatched Hussain and Graham Thorpe leg before wicket and Alec Stewart to Sherwin Campbell's swooping low two-handed catch to his right.

Appropriately, Atherton was Ambrose's second wicket, carrying the great Antiguan into the elite company of his long-time partner and friend Walsh, Kapil Dev, Sir Richard Hadlee and Wasim Akram as bowlers with 400 Test wickets.

There is no more distinctive trademark of success in the contemporary game than Ambrose's enormous smile and joyful eyes at the demise of another victim.

His smile has never been wider, his eyes never more expressive than when an uncertain Atherton snicked to Lara and was, yet again, a victim.

No one has dismissed the England opener more times in Tests than Ambrose.

After the hugs and the high fives from celebrating team-mates, Ambrose turned to signal to the northeastern section of the ground where his wife and two young daughters were sharing the moment with him after flying in from Antigua a few days earlier.

He has only one more Test before he sticks to his repeated assertion that he is retiring after this series. His bowling and his commitment will be sorely missed.

Ambrose entered the Test still bothered by back stiffness that had needed overnight and early morning treatment.

Typically, he did not spare himself, going nine consecutive overs before leaving the field for half-hour. But he returned near the end, still clearly favouring his back, just in case he was needed.

He has commented pointedly on the lack of support he and Walsh have had from the support bowlers who are expected to take over the mantle when they leave.

It was again evident in the efforts of Reon King, who was troubled by lack of rhythm that led to three no-balls and a wide in six overs that cost 32, with six boundaries. Ambrose conceded two off his nine, Walsh none at all off his 15. It is a shocking contrast.

Nixon McLean, in his first Test of the series in place of the injured Franklyn Rose, achieved what neither King nor the man he replaced had done all series, a modicum of control once one of the other of the senior bowlers was resting.

He was taken for 18 from his first spell of three overs, not all the runs from the middle of the bat, but came back, up the incline from the opposite end, to back Walsh in a second burst of eight overs that yielded a mere 11.

In the hands of Ambrose and Walsh, the pitch appeared devilish, occasionally lifting from a length and deviating sharply from off the seam.

No bowler, on either side, found it quite so favourable, yet Darren Gough and Craig White, two Yorkshiremen on home soil, and Dominic Cork caused a collapse.

The West Indies batsmen were once more culpable.

While all five England wickets were to strokes fashioned in defence, three of the top seven in the West Indies order were attacking, while Lara made a grave misjudgment, pad-ding out a ball from the lively White, angled in from round the wicket that would have hit off-stump.

Campbell was seemingly seduced by overconfidence, slicing an expansive drive off Gough's out-swinger the ball after a meaty cover-driven boundary.

Adrian Griffith, playing with more freedom and assurance than at any time in the series, and Wavell Hinds raised the 50 with little bother when White and Gough destroyed the middle order.

Hinds, stuck on his crease, was caught behind off the inside-edge off White who accounted for Lara and Adams, the captain diverting a drive back into his stumps.

In between Lara and Adams, Griffith, normally so particular in ignoring deliveries off line, threw his bat at a wide one from Gough and touched a catch to Stewart, the waste of a promising start after the fall of two quick wickets.

The innings was tottering at 60 for five with only Jacobs and the fast bowlers left for Sarwan.

Had umpire Doug Cowie ruled Sarwan caught behind off a gloved hook off Gough when he was eight and Graeme Hick taken Ridley Jacobs at second slip, also off Gough, when ten, the total would have been even flimsier.

But nothing ruffles either Sarwan and Jacobs and they shared a sixthwicket stand of 68, a record for the West Indies in Tests on the ground, before Cork deceived Jacobs with a slower ball that he drove into mid-off's lap.

Sarwan kept going to the end, again impressive in his exquisite driving but now, also, in his handling of the short ball that posed problems for him at Old Trafford.

Three of his nine fours, before he ran out of partners, were thumping hooks and no one looked more composed at the crease all day.

The day may not be far off when he has the chance on a true, flat pitch and heaven help any ordinary bowling then.