January 2, 2001

MacGill strikes as West Indians suffer death in the afternoon

As they have crashed headlong from one disaster to the next in this Test series against Australia, West Indies' batsmen have been spectacularly undone by a different bowler every time. Only fair on his home ground, then, that it should be the turn of leg spinner Stuart MacGill to loom large in the disappointing slide that saw the tourists finish at 9/256 on a fascinating opening day of the Fifth Test here at the Sydney Cricket Ground today.

Following a lacklustre start, MacGill (7/92) went within a whisker of returning best ever figures in a career that has produced a fine bowling average but been accompanied by a general lack of opportunity too. In fifteen Tests prior to this one, he had taken sixty-eight wickets at less than twenty-five runs apiece. Yet the strength of the Australian attack and, more specifically, the presence of Shane Warne has made his appearances at the elite level fleeting. He was far from a certainty even to play here; paceman Andy Bichel, in the end, unluckily omitted because of the suspicion that the pitch at the remodelled SCG will increasingly yield to spin in this game. This despite the fact that the Queenslander had produced a five wicket haul of his own in the Test that preceded this one.

The decision to re-include MacGill in the eleven proved a heady one. In a devastating burst on either side of tea, he struck seven times. And in so doing, he reduced the tourists from a position of command at 0/147 to one resembling a far more familiar complexion at 8/240.

With the exception of the scalp of Jimmy Adams (10) - who fell palpably lbw to Glenn McGrath (1/43) - he took each of the first eight West Indian wickets to fall. Admittedly, he was helped by a freakish catch by Mark Waugh at slip to remove Brian Lara (35) and by two highly dubious decisions from Umpire Darrell Hair which accounted for Marlon Samuels (28) and Nixon McLean (0). But he plied his trade well. On an occasion which represented a curious mixture of past and present - this match helps mark the one hundred year anniversary of Federation in Australia - he turned back the clock too. Reminders were provided of both the SCG Test against England two years ago (the match in which he produced that current Test best of 7/50) and to Sydney Tests of the 1980s, when West Indian torment against the spinning ball was a regular sight.

In many ways, this was a day of two halves. Before a packed, good-natured crowd of 40880, Australia had actually been outplayed initially. In fact, the first day of Test cricket in a new year - depending on your particular perspective, maybe even the first of a new millennium - seemed to be illustrating that a new sense of resolve had permeated the West Indians' outlook too. There was a good piece of fortune at the start of the day when a coin fell on its correct side, giving them the chance to bat first on a pitch offering the Australian fast bowlers less bounce and pace with which to work than at probably any other time in the series. And then there was an outstanding partnership to follow - a record-breaker for the opening wicket to be precise.

Brought together by an ankle injury to Daren Ganga - the former's regular opening partner in this series - the makeshift opening combination of Sherwin Campbell (79) and Wavell Hinds (70) generated a stand of 147. It was one that had the Australian attack looking a shadow of the outfit that had previously run through the West Indian top order with regular abandon this summer.

Through the opening passages of the day's play, Campbell had looked shaky. He experienced a good stroke of fortune early (with his score at six, in fact) when Jason Gillespie (0/44) spilled a low caught and bowled chance. He also survived a beseeching lbw appeal against the same bowler two runs later, and would have been run out for eighteen if a throw from Justin Langer at mid wicket had hit the stumps. There were also more of the plays and misses at McGrath that have been his trademark during the summer. But the narrow escapes seemed to represent the change in fortune that he needed.

A brace of powerful, well-timed strokes to both sides of the wicket ensued as the West Indian vice captain sought to take his game to a more attacking level than the one that had hitherto reaped the miserable aggregate of fifty-four Test runs for the entire summer. In the end, it was a surprise to see him misread a MacGill leg break an hour after lunch; lift a catch back to the bowler at just below knee height; and put the cap on a partnership that represented a West Indies all-time best for the first wicket in Tests in Sydney.

While he accumulated his runs more slowly, Hinds also played well. His batting also pointed to new-found resolve and, more particularly, to disciplined judgement on and around the line of off stump. Several times in this series he has been dismissed courtesy of playing well away from his body. The same flaw was rarely spotted today.

At that stage, the surface seemed to be offering far less in the way of assistance to the bowlers than the others that have already been used in the series and the Australians accordingly struggled to look inspired. Gillespie's early miss also set the stage for an uncharacteristically sloppy overall exhibition in the field with several wayward returns to wicketkeeper Adam Gilchrist featuring. Waugh clutched a remarkable catch low to the ground in between two fingers on his left hand; otherwise, instances of errors in the field easily outweighed evidence of brilliance.

But that was all before MacGill, and the unlucky Colin Miller (1/69), combined to make the surface look a more devilish beast. Fizzing turn, fizzing bounce, and the sight of a succession of batsmen shuffling back to the pavilion predominated after that.