March 13, 2001

All To Play For

Georgetown After four days of measured, intense struggle, the West Indies start the final day of the first Test today not only safe from the defeat they have endured in their last seven Tests but unmistakably showing that their aim is a stunnin victory.

They resume at 286 for four after another enthralling day, ahead by 258 with a minimum of 90 overs remaining in the match.

Their intention was clear when the precocious 20-year-old Ramnaresh Sarwan and his new captain Carl Hooper shocked the leg-weary South Africans with an assault that brought 79 off 19 overs, 62 off the last 11.

As Sarwan overcame an uncertain start to stroke his way to 71 and Hooper gained the benefit of whatever doubt umpire Eddie Nicholls had on a first ball lbw claim off Jacques Kallis to be 31, the largest crowd of the match delighted in the all-Guyanese partnership.

Sarwan counted nine fours in addition to his all-run effort. A couple were off the edge but they were mostly handsome cuts and drives on both sides of the wicket and against anyone who cared to try to remove him. In this mood, he justifies Ted Dexter's glowing prediction after his debut, unbeaten 84 against Pakistan last year that he'll end up with a Test average of 50.

Hooper swept left-arm spinner Nicky Boje for the only six of the day, the second of the match, executed a couple of trademark strokes, but even he had to play second fiddle to his youthful partner.

It was a marked contrast to the pedestrian scoring rate that had averaged less than two-and-a-half runs an over for the match and revealed a welcome new aggression that led to the rare sight of a South African team in disarray.

They have spent two whole days and part of the other two in the field and could not check the run-flow as Sarwan and Hooper attacked, scrambled quick singles and once ran four into the long-on corner of the oblong Bourda ground.

Significantly, it was not Sarwan and Hooper alone who were responsible for the West Indies' position.

Two more of the young brigade, Chris Gayle and Marlon Samuels, contributed 44 and 51 at important times while Brian Lara upped the tempo after lunch with 45.

On a worn pitch of unreliable bounce from which leg-spinner Dinanath Ramnarine created problems in the first innings, an early, if not immediate, declaration seems likely.

This is Hooper's first Test at the helm following an appointment that has sparked divisive reaction throughout the Caribbean and he might want to tread carefully against opponents who have dangerous hittters, most notably Lance Klusener.

One of his critics and one of his predecessors in the post, Sir Garry Sobers, can tell him all about declarations that go wrong.

But no day has yet yielded as many runs as the West Indies' present lead. An extention to 300 or an hour's batting, whichever is the earlier, would seem safe enough.

The finale was in contrast to the earlier exchanges as South Africa put the brakes on the West Indian scoring following the swift 50 put on by Wavell Hinds and Gayle off 15 overs on the previous afternoon. Any more of that and the match would have slipped away from South Africa faster than it did at the end.

The West Indies eked out 44 off the 28 overs before lunch, losing Hinds for 14 in the third over off Allan Donald, edging an expansive drive, and Gayle, dubiously given out for another catch to wicketkeeper Mark Boucher off Boje 20 minutes to the interval.

The dismissal was Boucher's 152nd in Tests, passing Dave Richardson as the best for South Africa.

Lara threatened to take control at the start of the second session with five typically sweet boundaries.

But he suddenly lost momentum and, after scoring 45 in a stand of 69 with the diligent Samuels, drove a catch to short extra-cover off Makhaya Ntini.

It was a crucial break for South Africa and when Samuels and Sarwan struggled to make progress in a stand of 63 in an hour-and-a-quarter both sides of tea, the contest seemed destined for stalemate.

Samuels seemed to lose concentration after a marathon vigil of four hours, 40 minutes for 51 and, driving with a sizeable gap between bat and pad, had his middle-stump plucked out by Kallis.

By now, the South Africans were despairing after several, if correctly, rejected, appeals. When they lost another to Hooper's first ball, they had nothing left to give.