At last, a win for the West Indies, dramatically snatched with three wickets in the last over when another defeat seemed certain.

It ended a sequence of five successive defeats and 12 in One-Day Internationals overseas, dating back to Sharjah last October and reversed a developing pattern of transforming commanding positions into losses.

The victory in the last preliminary match of the One-Day NatWest Series was by three runs with one ball remaining.

While it was merely consolation for the earlier elimination from tomorrow's final, it was all the more satisfying since it was over England who might just have begun to believe, on recent evidence, that all fight had gone out of opponents against whom they still have three decisive Test.

It was not a flawless performance. There were still irritating mistakes in the field, some waywardness from the fast bowlers and limp batting. But there was undeniable evidence of genuine spirit and a determination not to lose this one as well.

Reon King's three wickets for two runs from nine balls that halted another threatening England start hinted at a return to form while there were three nifty run-outs.

Yet, with one over remaining, the match seemed to be England's.

They had three wickets standing, Alec Stewart was entrenched with his second successive hundred and only five runs were needed to overhaul the West Indies' modest 195 for nine.

The four main bowlers had each exhausted their 10 overs so that, for the last decisive six balls, Jimmy Adams was left to choose between his own left-arm slows and Chris Gayle's off-spin.

Flexing his bowling shoulder during King's penultimate over, it seemed as if the captain would accept the responsibility himself but, if that was the case, he changed his mind after a quick chat with vice-captain Sherwin Campbell and entrusted the job instead to Gayle, aged 20 and a mere babe in the international game.

Adams has been censured for several of his de-cisions over recent defeats but this one was inspired.

As captain of Jamaica, he knows all about Gayle's temperament. He had used him in similar situations in the Red Stripe Bowl back home and was not fazed by the youth's costly 49th over in the loss to Zimbabwe last Sunday.

As Gayle related afterwards, Adams handed him the ball with only two words of advice: Don't bowl a wide and don't bowl a no-ball. In six previous overs, Gayle had done neither and he now proceeded to send down five balls as near perfect as possible in the situation, well up, direct and flat.

Left-handed Paul Franks, a 21-year-old all-rounder on debut for England, squirted the first delivery into the off-side and ran helterskelter for the other end, primarily to get Stewart onto strike.

Mahendra Nagamootoo darted in from cover, swooped on the ball righthanded and, in one motion, shattered the stumps with Franks so short of his ground, umpire Barry Leadbeater didn't ask for the TV replay.

Five were still needed off five balls but the capacity crowd of 15 000, basking in the sunshine, could feel content that Stewart was back in strike, 11 fours already against his name and in such command he would surely do the necessary.

He tried to hoist the second ball over mid-on, missed, was struck on the pad and, as Gayle and keeper Ridley Jacobs yelled their appeals, Stewart and new batsman Darren Gough ran one leg-bye and looked for a second.

Ramnaresh Sarwan, sprinting back from short, fine third man, kept them on a single with a quick pick-up and return and there, as it turned out, the match was won.

Gayle speared the next three balls at the stumps. Gough, driving, missed the first low on the full toss and had his off-stump hit.

The last man, Alan Mullally, intercepted the next two on the front pad as he missed desperate cross-hauls, the second earning Leadbeater's clearcut decision for the lbw.

With each England wicket, the West Indian fervour that had so noticeably evaporated over the past fortnight with each defeat returned with huddles of leaping, back-slapping and high-fiving joy.

It was unrestrained as soon as Leadbeater's finger was raised for the last time and with good reason. Another loss would have been another blow to declining self-confidence.

Yet, without Brian Lara who decided to rest his worrisome hamstring, they fell what Adams reckoned to be 20-30 runs short of a reasonable total as they were confined by controlled English bowling and near flawless fielding.

Gayle topscored with 37 off 71 balls with four fours which, with his last over, earned him the Man-Of-The Match Award.

Adams tried to hold the middle of the innings together with 36 off 59 balls, his second highest score of the tour. But it took Franklyn Rose's beligerent 29 off 26 balls in the closing overs to get the total as close to 200 as it was.

In response, Stewart and the left-handed Marcus Trescothick gave England's innings a flying start, exploiting some early loose stuff from King and Merv Dillon to add 46 in 10.4 overs.

But King, fast and accurate, then despatched Trescothick and Andy Flintoff and caused Graeme Hick to be the fifth played on victim of the day to leave England 49 for three.

Had Adams run out Stewart, then 41, the West Indies would not have cut it so close.

Powell's running-out of White at 138 kept the match on even balance but it was England's before Gayle's final over.