January 5, 2001

Tourists afford series a sting in the tail

It took until the penultimate day of the series, and relied on the inspiration of two players who have barely figured through its duration. But, at last, the sight of West Indies refusing to yield to Australia arrived. As a result, we finally have a contest too; at stumps on the fourth day of the Fifth Test here at the Sydney Cricket Ground, Australia is at 2/44 chasing a target of 173 to win.

The excellent form of Ridley Jacobs (62) has been a constant throughout this summer so it represented little surprise to see him at the heart of a mid-afternoon recovery which transformed the complexion of this match. But to spot the sparingly used Mahendra Nagamootoo (68) and previously horribly out of form Ramnaresh Sarwan (51) also applying themselves earnestly in its midst was certainly unexpected.

What made the revival even better still was that it came on the heels of another disastrous morning session for the West Indians. The loss of Jimmy Adams (5), Sherwin Campbell (54) and Marlon Samuels (0) in the space of five deliveries only half an hour into the day - a surrender which saw them slide to a mark of 4/112 in their second innings - was a grave development given that as many as 180 runs were required to even make the Australians bat again. And the miserable predicament was then exacerbated when a defending Brian Lara (28) failed to capitalise on an earlier reprieve and lost his wicket to a beautifully pitched ball from off spinner Colin Miller (4/102) half an hour before lunch.

Until Sarwan finally lost concentration after close to two-and-a-half hours of unflinching resistance and sparred away from his body at a Glenn McGrath (3/80) delivery, he and Jacobs added eighty-five runs for the sixth wicket in enterprising style. In the process, they ensured not only that the match would enter a fourth innings but added a genuine touch of spine to the West Indian performance as well. It was difficult to believe that the former had entered this innings with a bare three runs against his name in total for the series and with his confidence and demeanour at apparent rock bottom. For that sorry record counted for little today; he survived a hat-trick ball from Jason Gillespie (2/57) first up, imperiously thumped the second delivery that he faced to the cover boundary, and then barely looked back.

Although well renowned in the Caribbean for his all-round skills, Nagamootoo was also something of a surprise packet. His hand was predominantly attacking - a feature perhaps best exemplified by a number of straight, lofted blows - but contained a nice mixture of defensive shots as well. His maiden Test half-century brought a completely contrasting response to the far more relieved and reserved one offered by Sarwan; an extravagant series of waves of the bat and some fist-pumping for good measure ensuing as he reached the mark only a few moments before tea.

"I always bat like that," said Nagamootoo. "I never put myself down; when the bad ball comes along, I always (try and) put it away."

"In the beginning, it was really tough. I thought that I would just try and bat for as long as I possibly could."

"I've not really been in and out," he replied to the suggestion that he has been unluckily overlooked on this tour. "I was injured and have been doing as much as I can to get into the team. One step at a time in practice and I (just try and) take my opportunities when I can get them."

Nagamootoo's innings might never have blossomed; his own stand of seventy-eight with Jacobs might never have transpired; and the position of the match might have been completely different too, if Umpire Darrell Hair had not denied what looked an excellent McGrath lbw appeal against him when the left hander had only two runs on the board. But, in an ironic way, it seemed appropriate that the decision went the West Indians' way, if for no other reason than it finally permitted Jacobs the sort of support that his form has commanded all the way through this tour. It also helped lay the platform for this to develop into by far the best and most competitive day of the series.

Ultimately, the trio's batting helped swell the West Indian second innings tally to a mark of 352. It also had the crowd of 14728 in an appropriately deferential mood by the time that number eleven and 127 Test veteran, Courtney Walsh, entered an Australian arena for the very last time with a bat in his hand. The Australians formed their own on-field guard of honour to salute the champion too. In the middle of the most intense battle of the summer, it was lovely stuff.

That the out-of-sorts Matthew Hayden (5) and Justin Langer (10) each fell inside the first seven overs of Australia's pursuit of their victory target - to leave the hosts looking a touch vulnerable for once - emphasised the extent of the fightback. Michael Slater (18*) and Mark Waugh (3*) ultimately held firm but each had narrow escapes along the path to stumps. They, like a reinvigorated West Indian team, will be back to do it all again tomorrow.