April 12, 2002

Aye, Aye, Skipper!

Carl Hooper compiled what he understandably described afterwards as the most satisfying hundred of his long, turbulent career yesterday.

The West Indies captain's unbeaten 108 on the opening day of the first Cable & Wireless Test, his 11th in his 93rd Test, was neither his most fluent nor his most commanding.

But it was, unquestionably, the most significant.

It was his first before his adoring compatriots on the Bourda ground that has been his cricketing home since he was a teenaged prodigy, a goal that had eluded him in five previous Tests. His highest effort had been his 69 against South Africa last year in his first match as captain.

Above all, it led the West Indies from an early, familiar crisis of 44 for three at Brian Lara's unlucky dismissal for a duck to a comfortable, if not yet commanding, 270 for four by the end of a hot, sunny day.

It also established Hooper's credentials as leader, under increased criticism following the team's latest debacles in Sri Lanka and Sharjah.

He could not have achieved the recovery alone and there was solid, assured support in successive partnerships, each worth 113, with two other Guyanese: Ramnaresh Sarwan and Shivnarine Chanderpaul.

What the trio one Afro-Guyanese, the others Indo-Guyanese achieved in five hours of quality batting is reflected by the scoreboard. The effect of their mission on the people of a country so often torn by racial divisions could be judged by the joyful response of the 8 000 or so in the stands.

Sarwan, nimble of footwork, sound in technique and fluent in strokeplay, was flawless for just under four hours for 53. Then, for no explicable reason, he gifted his wicket with a slack drive to mid-off from off-spinner Sarandeep Singh ten minutes after tea.

The left-handed Chanderpaul, aggressive from the start, took advantage of opponents who visibly wilted to reach 57 with seven boundaries at the end of a day extended by 35 minutes in spite of 36 overs from leg-spinner Anil Kumble and Sarandeep.

The Indian indiscipline was obvious in their 21 no-balls, their desperation evident with a field placing that posted a solitary man on the leg-side in the closing overs.

It was a marked change from their mood at noon.

When Hooper marched down the steps of the Georgetown Cricket Club pavilion he knows so well to pass Lara on his way to the middle, India's worthy but underrated fast bowler Javagal Srinath had created havoc in an incisive opening spell.

After a flurry of boundaries across the bone-hard, lightning fast outfield, he found the requisite fuller length and proper line.

In his second over, he brushed Chris Gayle's tentative outside edge for a catch to the keeper, a familiar dismissal for the tall left-hander.

In his fourth over, he twice overpitched to Stuart Williams and was driven each time for off-side fours.

Undeterred, he pitched up again and pinned Williams on his uncertain left pad for a clear lbw verdict from Australian umpire Daryl Harper, along with the Sri Lankan Ashoka deSilva standing as the two members of the International Cricket Council's new, so-called elite umpires' panel. There was nothing elite about Harper's next decision.

In his first match since fracturing his left elbow in a Sri Lanka on December 15, Lara was kept watchfully on the defensive for ten testing deliveries by Srinath. The left-hander offered uncertainly at his 11th and Harper raised his finger on appeal as wicket-keeper Deep Dasgupta gathered.

Lara's obvious shock before trudging off was shown to be justified. Television replays revealed the bat clearly missed the bat, the umpire apparently influenced by its contact with the left-hander's pad.

It left a difficult void for Hooper to fill. He brought rich form into the match, following his 222 and unbeaten 149 in his last two innings in the Busta Shield but he started like a novice.

His first ball, from Srinath, deflected from the inside-edge and the flying Dasgupta could only get the fingers of his left glove onto the chance.

He was ten and having problems with medium-pacer Sanjay Banger when, aiming to leg, he outside-edged an outswinger that bisected the inattentive first and second slips.

Yet Hooper never lost focus as had once been his tendency. With Sarwan in full control at the opposite end, he gradually found timing and confidence.

Two boundaries in the same over from Kumble, a straight-drive and a lofted straight-drive, announced the transformation into the genuine Hooper. After that, not much bothered him except, perhaps, Sarwan's wastefulness.

On Sarwan's dismissal, Chanderpaul ensured India would not regain control, he and his captain taking 33 off three overs.

Hooper advanced from 90 to 96 with a trademark stroke, lofting Kumble into the Rohan Kanhai Stand at long-off, and completed his hundred with a back-cut boundary off the leg-spinner ten minutes later.

Delight and relief were etched all over Hooper's usually expressionless face and around the ground as Guyanese of every race rose to acclaim their hero.