January 3, 2001

More blue times for labouring West Indians

Blue skies, blue hair, more blue times for West Indies. At stumps on the second day of the Fifth Test against Australia here at the Sydney Cricket Ground, another match between these teams is beginning to carry an ominously lopsided look. At their first innings of scoreline of 4/284, the Australians have a twelve-run lead, have six wickets in hand, and have the tourists looking down the barrel of more misery.

The presence of those crisp blue skies, a warm reading on the thermometer, and the roll-up of another healthy crowd, all helped to put encouraging precursors in place at the start of the day. When Colin 'Funky' Miller removed his cap in preparation to bowl the opening over - to reveal a head of Denis Rodman-style bright blue hair - there was no doubt that there would be plenty of early colour.

Number eleven Courtney Walsh (4) joined with Colin Stuart (12) in typically inimitable style to survive twenty-five deliveries of probing spin from Miller (2/73) and Stuart MacGill (7/104). And then, when the Australian reply began, Michael Slater (96) underlined the point that his batting is rarely dull either.

Until he carved an unfortunate place for himself in the Test record books, Slater played a characteristically cavalier innings. He lost Matthew Hayden (3) and Justin Langer (20) early to edges outside the line of off stump. But typically and thrillingly, he was not discouraged and decided to live dangerously.

He experienced a particularly good slice of fortune with his score at fifteen when Mahendra Nagamootoo was unable to hold an overhead catch at mid wicket after a mistimed pull had been played at Walsh (1/60). He forced another stroke toward Wavell Hinds at cover on fifty-seven off Jimmy Adams (0/38) and that half-chance was missed too. He also played a number of loose shots outside the line of off stump. He appeared to set off willingly for a single when Mark Waugh (22) eased a stroke toward backward point, only to stop in his tracks and watch as his by now stranded partner failed to come anywhere near to beating a Sherwin Campbell return back to the striker's end.

But he then did what successful batsmen are told to do - capitalise upon their opponents' corresponding misfortune. Some brutal shotmaking off both the front and back foot ensued, with his driving down the ground a particular feature. In the shadows of lunch, his aggressive play brought him the reward of a half-century. And, after the break, he looked inexorably headed for the fifteenth century of his Test career.

Instead, another milestone came back to haunt him. Four short of raising three figures, he fixed his gaze upon an innocuous-looking, wide Nagamootoo leg break and tried to hoist it over cover. He failed. Dismally. Without appropriate movement of the feet, the ball was instead planted high in the air toward point where Marlon Samuels completed a straight-forward catch. Slater's frustration was palpable as he trudged dejectedly from the field.

"To me, it was a full, lofted delivery that deserved to go to the boundary," said a philosophical Slater.

"It was there to go (at) and I'd been playing good, positive cricket all day. That, to me, was right in the groove ... I thought it had 'four' written all over it."

To accentuate his annoyance, the dismissal allowed him to claim a share of a world record for the most nineties - nine in all - in a Test batting career. The nervous nineties have also been the final resting place for nine of Steve Waugh's innings, but the current Australian captain has been undefeated on two of those occasions. To the extent that criteria for such a record can genuinely be said to exist, it is Slater who therefore now probably has the dubious honour of having his nose in front. West Indian Alvin Kallicharran is next 'best' with eight.

"For me, I don't look at the hundred as being 'the bar'," revealed the new record-holder.

"No longer is one hundred satisfying enough for us (the batsmen in the Australian team) individually; we want to go on and make big hundreds to two hundreds. Ninety-six, to me, is just another figure. Whether it was 101 doesn't mean a whole lot different to me. I would have been just as disappointed to get out at 101 and 120 given that I was in and I should have gone on to get two hundred."

On a surface which continues to favour spin over pace, the West Indian slow men were bowling accurately at around this time. But, tellingly, they were also proving largely ineffective. Nagamootoo enjoyed a moment of glory when Slater's innings met its end. Otherwise, the batsmen were never under the same sense of watchful obligation that MacGill and Miller had impelled in the strokemaking yesterday.

There was still some sense of balance, and certainly some evidence of optimism in the West Indian camp, at the time of the pugnacious New South Welshman's exit. If anything, Australia actually even looked a touch vulnerable at 4/157. But, from a West Indian point of view, the match assumed a far more colourless air after that.

Perhaps the exertions involved in removing Slater contributed to a sense of weariness. Perhaps the haunting memory of Steve Waugh finding gaps at will in a generally tightly set field in Melbourne last week was the major influence in encouraging Adams to revert to some overly defensive field settings. But whatever the cause, the tourists laboured badly during the closing two hours of the day, conceding 127 runs to Waugh (82*) and Ricky Ponting (51*) in the course of an association for the fifth wicket that assumed crucial importance.

The West Indians were unlucky in that two close decisions involving Waugh went against them. The first of these came in the form of a very close lbw appeal from the lionhearted Walsh when the Australian captain had only seven runs alongside his name. The second came a little later as he drove away from his body at another conventional Nagamootoo leg break which either took an outside edge or, as Umpire Darrell Hair ruled, merely spun viciously on its way to Brian Lara at slip.

In an era in which even half-opportunities need to be converted against the Australians, they were the chances that got away.