OTTIS Gibson didn’t get the Kensington Oval pitch he wanted.
On the first day of the third and decisive Test yesterday, it was little more than a virtual replica of the featherbeds that kept his bowlers toiling for 235.2 overs in the first match at Sabina Park and 227 in the second at the Queen’s Park Oval.
The coach would have had mixed feelings at the end. While anything more than New Zealand’s all out 293 would have entirely spoiled his day, he could not have been satisfied with the repeat of the negative tactics and diminishing intensity that allowed the left-handers, Jimmy Neesham and Mark Craig, to add 64 from 17 overs for the ninth wicket.
It was the second innings at Queen’s Park all over again, when Craig kept them at bay for three and a quarter hours in a partnership with BJ Watling that delayed their series-levelling victory until an unnecessary final day.
Craig’s associate this time was the hard-hitting Neesham; the West Indies would have been aware of his threat from his hundred in the first Test at Sabina.
Now, as at Queen’s Park, Craig found himself given the comfort of four deep fielders against a lengthy spell from the reinstated Shane Shillingford who had a bad day (no wicket for 53 from 15 overs).
It eventually needed a run out to separate the pair, Neesham beaten by his own indecision on a push into the covers and Kraigg Brathwaite’s pick-up and return to Shillingford. With 78 off 91 balls, a six and ten fours against his name and completely in control, nothing seemed more certain than another Neesham hundred and a total in excess of 300.
Neil Wagner and Trent Boult both fell quickly to Kemar Roach and Sulieman Benn, the West Indies’ premier bowlers on the day; Craig was left unbeaten 46.
Chris Gayle and Brathwaite saw out the remaining nine overs with little bother, Gayle punching his mandatory six back overhead off Boult in his 18 off 23 balls.
Now it’s for the batsmen to accomplish what they did in building their match-winning lead at Queen’s Park. On a surface parched after months of no significant rainfall, a similar advantage is imperative.
As it is, the batting order has been shortened to bolster the bowling, Jermaine Blackwood having to make way for the return of Shillingford and Jason Holder replacing Shannon Gabriel for his debut Test.
In the circumstances, Jerome Taylor was well short of the constant menace he had been in the first two Tests and Holder was limited to ten overs, six before lunch and the remainder after tea.
The slack was taken up by Roach, in a couple of outstanding spells of controlled fast bowling either side of lunch, and Benn, for whom Kensington has always been a happy hunting ground.
They combined to reduce New Zealand to an inadequate 194 for seven 20 minutes to tea before the effort flagged in the final session.
All New Zealand’s leading batsmen had fallen before Craig joined Neesham. Whenever a restorative partnership was developing, a testing delivery or a rash stroke against Roach and Benn, or a combination of the two, checked it.
Kane Williamson, Ross Taylor and captain Brendon McCullum all got started; none carried on past 50.
In the third over after a belated lunch break (an embarrassing and unwelcome first for Kensington in its 50th Test), Benn clipped Williamson’s tentative push for a catch to slip, gone for 43 after a stand of 74 with Taylor.
Three overs later, Roach tested Taylor with one of the few bodyline deliveries for the day–the surface did not encourage them--and Benn dived far to his right from gully to snare a right-handed catch low to the turf. It was a gymnastic achievement for someone measuring six feet, seven inches from head to toe. The dangerous Taylor was out for 45 with seven fours--114 for four.
With 31 runs from his four innings in the series, it was time for the skipper to deliver.
McCullum’s aggressive method was typical. He spanked the tiring Roach for three fours in his 10th over then offered a bizarre shot to one from Benn that bounced. He was halfway to the pavilion when Darren Bravo ran behind the keeper to gather the top-edged deflection; out for 31, 168 for five.
As he had done to Williamson, Benn induced an edge to slip from BJ Wattling, a dismissal of a batsman who had twice held them up in the series.
When Benn yorked the always belligerent Tim Southee with a faster delivery, New Zealand were seven down and still six short of 200. Gibson was smiling in the Garfield Sobers Pavilion; the 1,500 or so in the stands certainly were.
Neesham and Craig gradually wiped the satisfaction off West Indian faces until the fortuitous run out.