First Cornhill Test


Peter Johnson

At Leeds, June 8, 9, 10, 11. West Indies won by nine wickets. Toss: West Indies. Test debut: P. J. Martin.

The notion that defeat by Australia had left West Indian cricket on a life-support machine proved a trifle far-fetched. But for repeated interference by mid-winter weather, victory in what England regarded as the vital, trend-setting Test would have been wrapped up in three embarrassing days. Individual weaknesses in Richardson's side were easy to identify, more difficult to exploit for an England team that got its balance and its strategy badly wrong.

The close-season sacking of manager Keith Fletcher made this the first Test in which chairman of the selectors Ray Illingworth assumed total power and, by inference, accepted all the blame. His determination to play five bowlers gave Lancashire's Peter Martin his Test debut but forced the reluctant Stewart to keep wicket and bat down the order. Strangely, his position as opener was entrusted to Smith. As Smith had rarely done the specialist job, was playing his first Test for 11 months, and was still finding his form after a shoulder operation, he hardly seemed the perfect choice. And so it proved when Richardson - winning the toss for the eighth time in successive Tests - asked England to bat, something, it transpired, they would have done anyway. Smith, dropped in the slips by Hooper's chilled fingers when he was three, survived for 69 minutes before his obsession with cutting the uncuttable gave Richardson a slip catch.

Atherton, on trial again after being given the captaincy for only three Tests, had already focused his immense powers of concentration on the brand of innings Headingley pitches demand. His 81 was not so much a masterpiece as a priceless collection of miniatures. Statistically, it lasted 214 minutes but, in fact, it spread from the first to the last ball of a rain-wrecked day - another shower started before Ramprakash could take guard. As squall upon squall hit the ground, Atherton played himself in seven times - on each occasion looking as if he had never been away. Until an away-swinging peach from Bishop gave wicket-keeper Murray a diving catch, he drove and pulled at anything off-line with the certainty of a batsman nearing a peak many believed he might never scale.

Maybe it was he who told his team not to cower before the West Indian attack, as so many of their predecessors had done. Wise advice, but, like the order to the Light Brigade, it was misinterpreted. The promise of 142 for two shortly before the end of the first day became 199 all out as batsmen swung wildly at enticingly short balls. Wistful dreams about aging, sulking, half-pace bowlers were shattered. Walsh, ageless and tireless, was as combative as ever. Ambrose rediscovered his rhythm and his scowling enthusiasm and, by bowling Malcolm in the second innings, claimed his 100th Test wicket against England. Injury restricted Kenny Benjamin later, but his five wickets warned against taking liberties with his erratic speed. However, the revelation was Bishop, devout Christian and born-again fast bowler. He collected seven wickets in his first Test since a back injury threatened his career two years earlier. His remodelled action did not generate the old pace, but he had become the thinking man's giant, able to hit the right spot from a great height and move the ball both ways. His first-innings five for 32 included a spell of five for five in 18 balls.

England's apologists blamed Headingley's unreadable bounce. That understated the artfulness of the bowling as well as the naïveté of some of the batting. Nothing could have made that point more savagely than Lara's assault upon England's bowlers. He launched into his spectacular, irreverent 53 after Malcolm's first delivery had been dollied to slip by Hooper - like Smith, an unfamiliar Test opener. But players of Lara's calibre tend to be oblivious to crises. He hit Malcolm with such nimble-footed abandon that England's spearhead was withdrawn after his first two overs cost 24. He was rarely called upon again and not trusted with the new ball in the second innings. Fraser's weary-looking accuracy would have been useful, but England's most dependable bowler had been omitted from the twelve. Without him, the attack never recovered from a ragged, indisciplined start as Lara outpaced the fluent Campbell in a partnership worth 95 runs and plenty more psychologically. He had hit ten fours in 55 balls when a huge swing at left-arm spinner Richard Illingworth gave Hick a leaping catch at slip. Like the steady Martin, Illingworth kept his nerve under heavy fire. He had played his only two previous Tests on West Indies' last visit in 1991 and, at 31, was recalled only because younger spinners had not lived up to expectations. Yet England leaned heavily on him, especially after Gough strained his back delivering his second ball. Gough had only a walk-on part for the rest of the match.

After Lara's half-century was followed by calmer ones from Campbell and Adams, West Indies could throw away wickets and still lead by 83. It was too many for England batsmen intent on using the square cut as a razor across their own throats. Smith and Stewart perished that way, and Hick pulled crudely. But England's spirit was really lowered to half-mast at 55, when Atherton edged Walsh to Murray. Thorpe's sound 61 was too late and too isolated to do more than prolong matters.

West Indies made up for lost time when Hooper and Lara, going hell-for-leather for the necessary 126, indulged in the kind of strokeplay that stays for ever in a spectator's memory and permanently scars the bowler's. Hooper hit four sixes and nine fours in his 73, Lara eight fours in 48 off just 40 balls. Neither could ever have had more fun in the schoolyard. Could this really have been the team who, according to coach Andy Roberts, had to be cajoled on to the field to face Australia only six weeks earlier?

Man of the Match: I. R. Bishop. Attendance: 63,770; receipts £1,193,138.

Close of play: First day, England 148-4 (A. J. Stewart 1*, M. R. Ramprakash 0*); Second day, West Indies 236-5 (K. L. T. Arthurton 36*, J. R. Murray 14*); Third day, England 109-4 (G. P. Thorpe 37*, M. R. Ramprakash 12*).

© John Wisden & Co