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Hopeful revival at Oval

By BY Tony Cozier

WE’VE got to go back 15 years, to the 1999 home series against Australia, to find as unlikely a turnaround for the West Indies’ as that in the second Test against New Zealand at the Queen’s Park Oval on Friday.

The circumstances were almost identical; even the margin of victory by 10 wickets was the same. 

West Indies cricket has floundered for so long that any straw is eagerly clutched at. Normally, it would be fanciful to base any optimism on nothing more than a solitary victory over tough, resilient but hardly intimidating opponents; in this case, the expectation is that the impact of the latest revival won’t be as transitory as that in 1999.

The transformation then was inspired by the unique genius of one man, Brian Lara, the beleaguered captain. The encouraging difference is that this sequel was a true team effort; all eleven could claim a contribution to the outcome. 

It was even more significant that five of those to the forefront were in their early or mid 20s. The timeworn cliché can be again be seized on; they do represent the future.

In 1999, Lara had returned from a humiliating 5-0 whitewash on the West Indies’ first major tour of post-apartheid South Africa to receive a roasting from the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) for “weaknesses in leadership”; it placed him on probation for two Tests.

The first against Australia in Port of Spain brought as crushing a defeat as the West Indies had ever suffered, by 351 runs; their second innings all-out 51 was then their lowest Test total. Lara’s tenure in the position he had long since craved was surely at its end.

What happened next spoke as much to Lara’s mental strength as to his exceptional batting skill. It also highlighted how much the West Indies relied on him. 

Responding to Australia’s modest first innings 256 in the second Test, Lara set out from the familiar despair of 34 for four. He proceeded to ravage an attack of Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie, Shane Warne and Stuart MacGill for 213. The steadfast Jimmy Adams kept him company in a stand of 322; the other nine cobbled together 82 between them. 

The Australians, duly stunned, could only muster 177 in their second innings against Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh and Nehemiah Perry, a tall off-spinner on debut. A dozen were all that was required to complete the result.

There was more Lara magic in the third Test in Bridgetown. His unbeaten 153 that carried the West Indies to their implausible target of 311 on the final day, with Walsh, the accredited No.11, as his final partner, left big men weeping and hugging each other, women swooning. 

From the debacles of South Africa and Port-of-Spain, the West Indies were now unbelievably 2-1 up in a series against Test cricket’s most powerful team. In spite of another Lara hundred, the final Test was an anti-climax; Australia won comfortably to share the series.         

The resurgence proved transitory; within a year, Lara had resigned as captain after the West Indies’ early elimination from the World Cup in England and defeat in both Tests and all five ODIs in New Zealand. It was back to square one.

Fast forward to 2014. The backdrop was no less daunting than that facing Lara and his team; the tally was four losses, three by an innings in three days, in Tests in India and New Zealand five months earlier. After such thrashings, the captain, Darren Sammy, threw his hands in the air and proclaimed “we cannot continue like this”. The WICB responded to his lament, not by censuring him for weak leadership and placing him on probation but by replacing him with Denesh Ramdin.

The outcome of Ramdin’s first Test at the helm equated to that of the first Test of 1999. The margin was 186 runs in four days; it would have been greater but for a swashbuckling, nothing-to-lose last wicket partnership of 82.

Heading to Port-of-Spain, the despair was every bit as acute as it was prior to Lara’s stimulus 15 years earlier. The omnipresent football World Cup was a welcome distraction.  

Usually ultra-cautious selectors reacted by making three changes. On the irrefutable evidence of form, specifically hundreds against touring Bangladesh ‘A’ in Barbados, they reinstated Kraigg Brathwaite and introduced Jermaine Blackwood as the first new batsman in the Test team for two years. They recalled Shannon Gabriel to boost the fast bowling.  

At 21, Brathwaite was the youngest player on either team, not that long out of Combermere School in Barbados, alma mater of two cricket knights, Frank Worrell and Wes Hall – and, without even a fleeting relevance to cricket, pop superstar Rihanna as well. 

Brathwaite was Man-of-the-Match for his archetypical opener’s 124 around which the dashers carried out the game plan to be more assertive than they were in Kingston. Together, they built the formidable first innings lead. 

Darren Bravo, 25, was once described by Steve Waugh as “the next batting superstar, no doubt”. He hasn’t lived up to such hype since; now he shook off the effects of the “personal problems” that led to his premature exit from the New Zealand tour in January with his first hundred in the Caribbean. 

Fittingly, it was at the Queen’s Park Oval where he plays for club and country. His uninhibited celebrations were a sure sign that, in three and a quarter hours, he had shaken off the gremlins.

Blackwood, 22, brought with him three hundreds and a 94 in his previous three matches. The leading scorer in the 2014 first-class season, he immediately took to Test cricket with a refreshing panache.

Kemar Roach and Gabriel are both 26. Roach was the bowling spearhead until a shoulder operation kept him away from cricket of any sort since last October, Gabriel was in his seventh Test. 

Jerome Taylor and Sulieman Benn, each returning after more than three years in Test exile, bore the brunt in a numerically limited attack. Benn, the beanpole left-arm spinner, sent down 86.4 overs in the match for his four wickets; his fielders let him down more than he deserved. 

Roach’s recovery, like Gabriel’s increasing self-belief, was evident in each spell.

Not everything was ideal for the West Indies. 

In Dwayne Bravo’s continued absence through injury, they are glaringly short of a competent all-rounder. In the field, they missed eight chances all told and were overcome by an abrupt lethargy, typified by strangely defensive tactics, during the frustrating ninth wicket partnership of 99 between BJ Watling and Mark Craig in New Zealand’s second innings that stretched the contest into the final day.

A seemingly trifling winning goal of 93 has often proved nerve-jangling; Chris Gayle put it in perspective with a no-nonsense, Twenty20 assault. His unbeaten 80 off 46 balls, with six sixes and seven fours, scotched concern, at least for the time being, that he is a spent force.

The third Test starts at Kensington Oval on Thursday. It presents an engaging finale between two evenly matched teams; it is as important for New Zealand’s mission to prove that their strength extends beyond their home shores as for the West Indies’ in building for the future.

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