March 14, 2001

An Even Break

Georgetown Stymied by an unco-operative pitch, the West Indies and South Africa could not produce a grand finale to the closely fought first Cable & Wireless Test at the Bourda Ground yesterday.

On a surface slow enough and low enough to reduce scoring to an average of under two-and-a-half runs an over and wickets to one every 15 overs throughout, it was clear from early afternoon that nothing would suddenly change.

As soon as they had the opportunity, at 4:30 p.m. on the dot and in the middle of an over, the two sides, satisfied that neither could claim even an advantage on points, agreed with the umpires that to continue would serve no purpose.

South Africa were 142 for two off 69.3 overs. For them to have reached their target of 306 following Carl Hooper's declaration after an hour's play or for the West Indies to have bowled them out would have required double the 76 overs they had available.

Yet the exercise was not entirely pointless.

Herschelle Gibbs, let off by the usually impeccable Hooper two-handed to his right at second slip at two off his fifth ball from Merv Dillon, took the chance to gather 83 unbeaten.

Suspended for six months last year for his association with former captain Hansie Cronje in the match-fixing business, he had gone 11 Test innings without a half-century.

His place was clearly tenuous but, bowled by a shooter for eight in the first innings, his luck changed and he capitalised on it with an innings of fluent and confident strokes.

On the West Indies side, Nixon McLean's position was also at risk. He probably sensed it and, in two spells, showed the watching selectors that, when ready and encouraged, he is still capable of genuine pace.

The West Indies were 258 to the good when play resumed after a tenminute delay because of early morning rain.

It was already a powerful position but Hooper, in his first Test as skipper, understandably took no chances with his closure.

He let his second innings run for an hour before he felt it was safe enough at 333 for seven after Ramnaresh Sarwan, 71 at the start after his volley of strokes on the previous afternoon, was run out for 91.

It was the highest score by a West Indian in their seven Tests against South Africa, but the delightful Sarwan's inevitable first Test century would have to wait for another day as his desperate dive failed to beat Herschelle Gibbs' flick from backward square-leg to the keeper.

Hooper himself had succumbed earlier, offering a top-edged cut to backward point off left-arm spinner Nicky Boje, played from two feet outside leg-stump and he waited until McLean was lbw first ball before signalling his decision.

Alarm bells might have rung for South Africa with an early wicket or three, but Hooper, to his obvious disgust, squandered the immediate chance, allowing Gibbs' edge to burst through his usually adhesive hands.

The main threat to South Africa's security on a worn pitch should have been the leg-spinner Dinanath Ramnarine who created problems for them in the first innings.

He did remove the left-handed Gary Kirsten, accumulator of 150 in the first innings, to a gloved catch to short-leg when he switched for a couple of overs from the southern, Regent Street end to the north.

But his leg-breaks and googlies were negated by the slowness of the pitch and he seemed too anxious to make things happen.

Umpire Eddie Nicholls, steady throughout the match, had some difficult decisions to consider as Courtney Walsh, in a lively opening spell; McLean, Ramnarine and Hooper, with his off-spin, came close to edges and gloves.

He got all right as he did when McLean brought one back into Jacques Kallis to hit him on the backfoot in front of middle and leg after a stand of 68 with Gibbs.

It meant nothing to the outcome but it was a satisfying, and deserving, victim for McLean.

Kirsten was chosen by Basil Butcher as his Man Of The Match, a clearcut decision for the one major innings of the match.

The result ended a losing streak of seven Tests for the West Indies and, if Hooper did not follow the previous four captains Richie Richardson, Walsh, Brian Lara and Jimmy Adams with a victory in his first Test, there was plenty to satisfy him.

With Sarwan's cultured strokeplay, the 21-year-old Chris Gayle scoring 81 and 44 and the 20-year-old Marlon Samuels confirming the potential revealed on debut in Australia with 40 and 51 at No. 3, it was a heartening match for West Indian batting that has been so vulnerable for so long.

It is remarkable that, suddenly, there is no space in the XI for Shivnarine Chanderpaul, a reliable and quality batsman with a Test average of 40 and still only 26.

Ramnarine's bowling in what was only his fourth Test, and his first in more than a year, and the general efficiency of the team in every department were other heartening features.

The challenge is to maintain such standards throughout the series against tough opponents who will get tougher.