Before the Port-of-Spain Test, of the 46 Tests Australia had played with Steve Waugh at the helm, they had lost just seven (winning 34 and drawing five). Two of these losses were effected in Waugh’s first series as captain in early-1999, practically single-handedly by a gentleman called Brian Charles Lara. No disrespect meant to the talents or contributions of the other West Indians in those sides -- it just turned out that way.
Yesterday, Lara, this time aided by strong contributions from his teammates, was looking poised to take his tally against Waugh’s invincibles to three. But, right after lunch, the same teammates showed a preference for the pavilion than the pitch. And, that was that! What was shaping up into a humdinger of a contest in the morning, with uncanny reminisces of an epic run-chase at Bridgetown, Barbados, four years ago, turned into a lop-sided contest the other side of lunch.
The West Indies started the day at 107-3, needing a further 300 to win in 90 overs of play. They did everything asked of them in the first session. Ramnaresh Sarwan, the brightest batting prospect to emerge from the islands since Shivnarine Chanderpaul, sealed up one end. At the other, Lara was his usual self, a resolute mix of dogged defence and striking flair, scoring at close to four an over, and keeping his side well in the hunt.
The Australians came at him hard, especially Brett Lee. On a dusty track offering absolutely no assistance to the quickies, and with a rampant Lara striding into the nineties and looking good for his first Test century on his home ground, Lee reverted to the oldest and most-effective intimidation tactic in cricket: the short ball.
He bent his back like a mule for seven fiery overs, put the ball in the right spots and really made it rear up into Lara’s body. Lara hobbled at the crease, one snorter hit him smack on the back as he tried to take evasive action. The colourful and partisan Port-of-Spain crowd, sensing the momentary unease of their favourite son, got into the match big time.
That first session was a beautiful advertisement for Test cricket. The fifth day of a Test (how common is that these days?). The match itself poised delicately, up for grabs. The world champions versus the man who had done them in twice before in similar situations, and was showing every intent of doing it all over again. Who would blink first?
The Windies didn’t blink till lunch. The Aussies didn’t either. However, with the clock inching towards the designated lunch time, a few of them shot off their mouths when Lara tried to stall play so as to avoid facing another over. He and Sarwan didn’t face another over. But he did have to face the ire of some Aussies, notably Ponting and Lehmann, in between respectful handshakes for Lara from some other Aussies. It brought in some more needle into the contest, as the teams retreated to the cool confines of the dressing room, to ponder over the morning session and plot for another round of confrontation.
At the pre-match meeting that morning, the Windies might have spoken of going through the first session without losing a wicket. And that’s what they had done, in the process wiping of 103 runs from the target, which, if they managed to reach, would be the highest fourth-innings run chase in the history of the game. A game was on.
Perhaps, in a moment of doubt, Waugh, his battle-weary eyes hidden behind sunny glares, might have wondered whether his bold declaration had given too much latitude to the Windies, in terms of the target and overs break-up (407 in 127 overs, or a rate of 3.2 per over).
Perhaps, seeing his bowlers toil wearily to make a breakthrough, Waugh might have silently wished that Glenn McGrath -- the spearhead of his attack and Lara’s nemesis on many occasions in the past (McGrath has dismissed Lara 13 times in Test cricket) -- was in the middle and probing the batsman outside the off-stump, rather than sitting with his feet up in the pavilion, having just flown in from Australia after being with his ailing wife, Jane.
The way the game was unfolding, Waugh’s mind might have drifted to Bridgetown 1999. Chasing 308, Lara led West Indies to a narrow one-wicket victory, scoring an unbeaten 153 and adding a precious six for the last wicket along with the game’s most infamous exponent of the cricket bat, Courtney Walsh. This, after he had smashed a special 213 in the previous Test to take his side to a 10-wicket win. Lara butchered the Aussies that series, piling up 546 runs at an average of 91. Over the past four years, it had taken something special to beat the Aussies (besides Lara, think Laxman, Butcher and Vaughan), and once more Lara had laid the platform for the assault.
But then, this is Australia, the side that invariably finds a way to win. After lunch, the Aussies tightened up, with the intention of squeezing the run flow and playing for the new ball, which was 15 overs away. MacGill, who was spinning his leggies like a top (to give some indication, one delivery pitched two inches outside the offstump and spun such a long way that umpire Asoka de Silva, rightly for once, called it a wide) but bowling one full toss an over in the morning, cut the frills.
From the other end, Waugh, probably wanting to hold back Gillespie and Lee for the new ball, available in an hour’s time, threw the ball to that ultimate team man Andy Bichel, whose journey from the perennial twelfth man to an ‘all-rounder’ is well-documented by now.
Wicketless in the past two Test innings and with McGrath back in the reckoning for a Test spot, the ever-smiling, ever-obliging Bichel seemed destined to go back to drinks duty for the remainder of the series.
He probably will (unless Gillespie breaks down yet again!), but he will go back with his head held up high and with his tag of being the best twelfth man in the business intact. In five overs, with deliveries that were more regulation than works of art, Bichel dismantled the West Indian middle-order in a five-over spell.
Sarwan gone to a miscued pull for a well-crafted 34 of 87 deliveries, Samuels trapped in front for 1 and debutant David Bernard caught low down at first slip by Hayden for 4. Just 18 runs had been added since lunch, and the momentum had shifted in favour of the Aussies.
From the other end, Lara watched in dismay and probably with a heavy heart, as his soldiers walked away from the battle without putting so much as a fight. All Lara wanted from the likes of Sarwan and Samuels was to hold their end up; he would keep the scorecard ticking -- a strategy that was so obvious and, more importantly, workable.
Lara on song is a delight to watch, in terms of sheer entertainment value, offering even more than that other pint-sized genius, Tendulkar. Unlike Tendulkar, who often gets shackled by thoughts of the value of his wicket to his team and adopts a measured approach to batting, Lara mostly plays with gay abandon. If the ball is short, he pulls imperiously; if it’s over-pitched, he drives through the line. He scores the bulk of his runs in boundaries.
It’s a style of play that works well in the small West Indian grounds, where the square boundaries are relatively closer. It means that even if there are men patrolling the fence, Lara can back himself to leave them stranded with his exquisite timing. It means that even if the run flow is temporarily choked during a tight stage, there’s always the chance to open the taps again.
After those stifling and damaging spells by Bichel and MacGill, and with the fragile West Indian tail exposed, Lara never did get a chance to open the taps. Three overs later, an extravagant, though intended, top edge was snared by Hayden at slip (who took five catches in the game, including some neat grounders, at first slip -- not his regular position).
As he trundled back for 122 (five hours, 208 balls, 13 fours, one six), Lara, and many among the people watching, might have wondered what might have been had Sarwan restrained his impetuosity. History might well have been rewritten.
Lara gone, it was just a simple matter of completing the formalities, which the Aussies did while breaking into a little bit of sweat. In the end, the margin of victory was 118 runs. Yet again, Australia, when put under the mat and probed with teasing questions, had successfully come up with the answers. Not with any magical or sparkling performances, but with good, solid, back-to-basics cricket, backed by dollops of self-belief.
Although leading the four-match series 2-0, thereby retaining the Frank Worrell Trophy for Test cricket between the two nations, there are chinks in the Australian armour. The bowlers, in particular, have laboured to get the Windies out in pitches and conditions that are not so bowler-friendly as they are used to back home. Lara, Daren Ganga and Chanderpaul have shown, albeit fleetingly, that the Australians are just as vulnerable and lost for ideas during big partnerships as the other teams.
Warne and McGrath have been sorely missed, though it’s not so evident since their batters have so far always given their bowlers a bank of runs to play with. Filling in for Warne in one-dayers is quite different than in the game’s longer version. Reasonable accuracy and an opposition taking risks will give even the ordinary bowler a look-in the one-dayers. In Tests, though, variety, guile and control are the weapons for a spinner, and there’s no one in Australia better than Warne.
McGrath will, in all likelihood, return to the side -- at the expense of Bichel -- and resume his intense duels with Lara. There’s no love lost between these two masters of their respective craft. In many ways, Australia has been Lara’s biggest challenge, his moment of reckoning, through the years.
Lara, on his part, has enjoyed scrapping with the Aussies, occasionally and uncharacteristically, even paying them back in their own currency. In the last series, evidently after being provoked, he put his helmet into McGrath’s face and had a heated exchange. Four years later, perhaps, age and circumstances might have tempered Lara and McGrath, but neither will hold back in the heat of a contest.
If Chanderpaul and Chris Gayle return to the side, as is expected, the West Indies will be full strength in batting for the first time in the series. It’s quite a formidable batting line-up, with Ganga looking good at number three and Lara being his usual prolific self against the Aussies. There’s a big question mark over the Windies bowling, though. Not once in the series have they looked capable of snuffing out 20 Australian wickets.
All they have in reserve is a rookie speedster called Tino Best, apparently the quickest in the Caribbean. Besides being express fast, Tino other’s claim to fame is that he’s the nephew of Carlisle Best, former Windies batsman of the eighties who was famous in his time for giving a running commentary on his own batting, much to the amusement of the opposition!
Tino, though, will have to let the ball do the talking -- and, he’ll really have to make it talk.