March 10, 2001

New skipper, same batting

Georgetown, Guyana Carl Hooper's first act as West Indies captain yesterday seemed vital.

He won the toss on the Bourda ground where he has played since he was a boy and depended on his batsmen to make the most the typically flat, featureless pitch and fast, parched outfield against South African bowling heavily reliant on pace.

They didn't fulfil his expectations.

Although their youthful top order laid the foundations of the sizeable total such conditions offered, each promising partnership was ended before it could develop into something substantial.

From the dominance of a lunchtime 101 for one, laced with 14 boundaries, and 206 for three 55 minutes after tea, the West Indies declined to 232 for seven at the close.

It is a pattern that has become painfully familiar, whoever the captain, wherever the venue.

They were kept in check first by purposeful South African bowling, in which Lance Klusener's accurate 26 overs of medium-paced off-cutters were essential, and field placing that throttled their runs.

Once Klusener removed the growing threat of Brian Lara, in his first innings for a month, the West Indies were effectively undermined by Allan Donald's removal of the becalmed Ramnaresh Sarwan and Ridley Jacobs with successive balls on his return for a third spell late in the day.

With an insignificant tail, Hooper himself, acclaimed on his entry like the idol he is in his home town, ended the day 12 with only three bowlers to come as company on resumption and finds himself with the daunting responsibility of pushing the total to at least 300.

Even that would be well short of what appeared possible at 141 for two half-way through the day.

At that point, the tall, 21-year-old left-handed opener Chris Gayle was thumping the ball around with withering power and a new-look, trimline Lara was carefully sweeping away the cobwebs.

Once Gayle, returning to the team for the first time since the Edgbaston Test last June, wasted the chance of an impressive hundred with a wonton stroke off Jacques Kallis in the 52nd over, the West Indies never regained the momentum he had given them.

The confidence gained from his high-scoring Busta Series was clear in every stroke of his 81 from 159 balls. The most productive were 15 boundaries, 13 punched through the off-side off front foot and back.

Either standing to his full height or taking a long stride forward to thump the ball through the off-side, he dominated all-Jamaican stands of 43 for the first wicket with fellow left-hander Wavell Hinds and 88 for the second with the 20-year-old Marlon Samuels.

Gayle paid particular attention to the first-change fast bowler Makaya Ntini, lashing him for four boundaries as his introductory four overs to Bourda went for 34. He lost Hinds to Shaun Pollock's clever slower ball for 13, driving a catch to short extra-cover on the hour. Samuels, given the responsibility of No.3 in his fourth Test, was as composed as he was during his recent initiation in the cricketing cauldrons in Australia. He reached 40 with a mixture of authentic strokes and a few uncertain edges before left-arm spinner Nicky Boje's flight passed his favoured on-drive and bowled for 40.

Gayle and Lara put on a further 34 when Gayle slashed wildly at one of the several deliveries the lively Kallis fired temptingly wide of offstump. His rare indiscretion off his 159th ball offered wicket-keeper Mark Boucher his 150th Test catch off an inside edge.

Gayle's dismissal introduced Sarwan, another one of the promising young West Indian batsmen but his inability to get the ball away heightened the pressure on Lara and led to his downfall.

As Sarwan blocked and stroked directly to fielders, the runs dried up.

Lara himself spent 90 balls over 26 before deciding enough was enough. Breaking free, the champion left-hander took 21 off his last 16 balls, driving Boje out of the attack and hoisting the miserly Klusener to the midon boundary.

Attempting to repeat next ball, he watched aghast as the ball skewed off the leading edge and skied into Donald's grasp at midoff. It was a deserving wicket for the persevering bowler and a critical break.

Donald capitalised on it by ending Sarwan's tortured hour-and-a-half for seven with an unplayable, inswinging yorker and claiming Ridley Jacobs leg-before with a knee-high full toss next ball.

The tail was exposed, Klusener quickly despatched Nixon McLean and the West Indies were left with a difficult match ahead.