“It’s nice to go into the rest day as favourites. I might get some sleep.”
Keith Fletcher, March 27, 1994.
Words: Richard H Thomas
It would be rare indeed for an England coach to get a full eight hours during a Test match, especially when touring the West Indies in the mid-90s. Like so many sporting calamities, it all started so brightly for England in the third Test at Port of Spain, Trinidad.
Chris Lewis and Gus Fraser each took four first-innings wickets as the home side posted a below-par 252. Sensible application by England’s tail, shepherded skilfully by Graham Thorpe, secured a lead of 76 and by the end of day three the hosts were only 67 runs ahead with the top five back in the hutch. With a rest day to contemplate what lay ahead, coach Keith Fletcher’s troops were sitting pretty. Lying asleep in his hotel room, with air conditioning whirring in the background, Fletcher no doubt dreamed of his side waking the next morning to mop up the tail and knock off the runs required.
On day four though, a 20-year-old Shiv Chanderpaul took advantage of being dropped twice in the slips by Graeme Hick and dug in, while paceman Winston Benjamin launched a counter-attack against what Wisden called “stray and increasingly dispirited England bowling”. England found themselves chasing 194 and if Fletcher’s sweet dreams hadn’t completely turned into a nightmare, they were about to.
Rumour had it that Curtly Ambrose had come into the series feeling rather jaded. It was suggested that he had fallen out of love with cricket, indeed it was even said he had never loved it much to start with. His skipper Richie Richardson said Ambrose had been “embarrassed” with his contribution in the Jamaica Test when he removed Chris Lewis in both innings but not much else. If England were ever to collar Ambrose it was now.
Not so for Michael Atherton who trudged off after being trapped in front by the giant Antiguan’s first ball. Alan Lee of The Times described Ambrose’s bowling up to that point as “wearing the cloak of fatigue and familiarity” but he was about to produce “the greatest spell of his life”. Apparently thereafter, the England skipper buried himself in Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading. It was an eerie anticipation of what followed.
In the words of Christopher Martin-Jenkins, Ambrose “lasered his way through a series of apparently concussed batsmen and the innings was demolished”. Geoffrey Boycott described the carnage as ”the most exciting period of Test cricket I can remember in all my years of playing and watching”. Of all the prose that described the mayhem, Simon Briggs of The Telegraph was the most succinct. “Mike Atherton’s chipper tourists needed only 194 to win, then Curtly Ambrose went ‘Fe Fi Fo Fum’ and skittled them for 46”. A match that had promised so much for England had ended in humiliation.
To England’s credit, they bounced back in style. Despite approaching the following Test in Bridgetown with trepidation Vic Marks called their performance “typically Athertonian: bloody-minded yet logical” as two centuries by Alec Stewart and an eight–fer by Fraser restored some pride. Keith Fletcher called the Trinidad debacle “just one of those things,” while Scotland on Sunday suggested that Napoleon probably attempted a similar PR job after Waterloo. But for one night at least, the England coach had apparently slept like a baby.