TEST CRICKET is about tantalising twists and turns, especially when it involves the West Indies.
Yesterday was no exception at Kensington Oval as the pendulum in the first Digicel Test against Australia swung back and forth before finally landing on the visitors, who are poised for victory after mounting a gallant fight back.
Career-best knocks of 68 not out and 40 not out by fast bowler Ryan Harris and spinner Nathan Lyon, in an invaluable last-wicket stand of 77 that allowed the Australians to boldly declare with a first innings deficit of 43 runs, were followed by a telling three-wicket burst by pacer Ben Hilfenhaus (10-4-17-3).
The upshot was that the West Indies, who had dominated the first three days, are now staring possible defeat, uncomfortably closing the penultimate day on an unsatisfactory 71 for five in their second innings–an overall lead of only 114 runs. With only the not out pair Narsingh Deonarine, who has batted defiantly for 20 (94 balls, 134 minutes) and wicket-keeper Carlton Baugh (two), plus the bowlers left, the Windies will also be hoping for a lower order revival.
The Aussies had rallied from 250 for seven, when they were still 199 runs behind the West Indies' first innings total of 449 for nine, to a respectable 406 for nine, half hour before tea, when captain Michael Clarke closed the innings.
Hilfenhaus then dismantled the West Indies' top-order, leaving them reeling on four runs for three wickets at tea.
He dispatched openers Adrian Barath (2) and Kraigg Brathwaite (0) in his second over and removed Kirk Edwards for one in his next over.
Barath played on while Brathwaite flashed at a wide delivery without moving his feet and was caught behind and Edwards, who unsuccessfully asked for a review of a LBW verdict, shuffled too far inside his stumps.
Shortly after tea, Harris again added to the Windies' woes by snaring the key scalp of Shivnarine Chanderpaul for 12 in his first over, inducing an edge from the first innings century-maker to wicket-keeper Matt Wade.
From the dire straits of 17 for four, Darren Bravo and Deonarine attempted to resuscitate the ailing innings with a 50-run fifth-wicket partnership, but the former succumbed after resisting for 145 minutes while making 32 with three fours off 76 balls, to the persevering Peter Siddle, 20 minutes from stumps.
Earlier, Harris, batting at No.9, came to Australia's rescue, hitting seven fours off 123 balls in a face-saving knock, which lasted three and a half hours.
The Windies had enjoyed a dream start with the second new ball as fast bowlers Kemar Roach and Fidel Edwards dismissed Michael Hussey and Siddle in successive overs after Australia resumed from 248 for five overnight.
When Fidel Edwards gained his second wicket by inducing Wade, who spent 125 minutes and faced 97 balls for his 28, to edge to Bravo at second slip, Australia were not out of the woods at 285 for eight.
But Harris, whose previous highest Test score was 35 not out, found two useful partners in Hilfenhaus and Lyons.
Hilfenhaus counter-attacked by hitting five fours in 24 off 29 balls before he was bowled by Roach, who was the Windies' most successful bowler with three for 72 off 29 overs.
With Roach and Edwards (two for 92 off 31 overs) tiring after delivering 12 and 13 overs, respectively, in the three-hour morning session, leg-spinner Devendra Bishoo (1-125) ineffective and captain Darren Sammy reportedly having niggling back pains, only bowling two overs at that stage, which cost 17 runs , the Australian tail wagged as they eventually lunched at 366 for nine.
Sammy started the attack after the interval but, after four more wicketless overs, recalled Edwards, who immediately won a LBW verdict from umpire Ian Gould but Harris successfully got the decision reversed after requesting a referral as television replays indicated the ball was going over the stumps.
Harris and Lyon, who faced 89 balls and hit seven boundaries in his 104-minute innings, added 40 more runs to the lunch total before Clarke played what could turn out to be a winning card.