May 12, 2002

Laxman, Ratra stake out West Indies

The West Indies left the Antigua Recreation Ground (ARG) yesterday evening with as many worries as a long-standing Caribbean prime minister.

There was non-stop partying in two of the most popular stands on the ground after the second day of the important fourth Cable & Wireless Test against India, but the mood in the West Indies' dressing room might well have been sombre.

After staging a partial fightback in the morning, their efforts were thwarted initially by dogged resistance and later by confident strokeplay by two batsmen firmly entrenched in a record partnership.

Vangipurappu Ventata Sai (V.V.S.) Laxman, whose initials have been affectionately amended to Very Very Special following two remarkable innings against world champions Australia, once more produced something of that calibre at a time when India were desperately in need of a revival.

His unbeaten 124, which started half-hour into the morning, might not rank with his 167 in Sydney or his 281 in Calcutta, but in the context of the series, it was just as vital for India, who have almost certainly put themselves in a position where they cannot lose the match.

Any century is very important and this, being my third, is also important. It was always a dream of mine to score a century in the West Indies and I am really thrilled, Laxman said.

In the first two games I was getting into the 60s and 70s and not converting big scores. I thought I would just hang in there, added the 27-year-old right-hander who has often been criticised for not doing justice to his immense talent.

It is a great honour playing for my country. It's always been my dream to score consistently and I am really hoping to improve on my consistency in the future.

In his company for almost five hours was the little wicket-keeper Ajay Ratra, who appeared to be a genuine tail-ender in his previous two Tests.

This time, he was unruffled by nothing the West Indies bowlers sent his way, and he resumes this morning seven short of a hundred with India on an impregnable 462 for six.

Bland statistics will reveal that India added another 236 runs and the West Indies managed only three wickets as was the case on the opening day, but to the purists, it might have been another day of absorbing Test cricket.

The first session yielded a mere 46 runs when India were on the ropes; the second brought 65 when they were trying to regain their composure; and the third produced 125 when they were the ones throwing the punches.

By then, a group of Indian supporters, here on a work attachment with the Antigua & Barbuda government and sitting in the Richie Richardson Stand next to the Press Box, were joyously making merriment as if it was a Hindu festival.

They repeatedly saluted Laxman and Ratra, whose unbroken stand of 205 surpassed the previous seventh-wicket high against the West Indies of 186 between Dilip Sardesai and Elnath Solkar at Kensington Oval in 1971.

Laxman, who spent 22 balls over his first run, was typically classy, his 14 boundaries executed with the timing and class that he displayed during his three previous half-centuries in the series.

There were the nice, flowing drives and a rare hook before tea, but he was particularly severe after the day's second break when he and Ratra tore into the bowling.

Ratra, tidy behind the stumps but woeful with the bat in four innings in Trinidad and Barbados when his scores were 0, 2, 1 and 13, batted defiantly before growing in stature to unleash some authentic strokes of his own.

His best was probably a hard pull off Pedro Collins, who later induced him into a top-edged hook to a vacant fine-leg.

A few minutes before tea, Ratra also pulled Ramnaresh Sarwan just short of mid-on at a time when many felt the part-time leg-spinner should have been long introduced to break the growing partnership.

Cameron Cuffy bowled just one over after tea, but there were no injury concerns over him. Nor were there any over Brian Lara who left the field after hitting the turf on his troublesome left elbow while trying to make a diving safe.

The first session was especially encouraging for the West Indies, their bowlers showing aggression on a pitch that contained early moisture following heavy rain in the wee hours of the morning that threatened a prompt start.

Three wickets went down in the space of an hour, including those of the two key overnight batsmen who were approaching landmarks.

Rahul Dravid and captain Sourav Ganguly were hemmed in by tight stuff and eventually something had to give.

Ganguly attracted the first real loose ball in the morning, but ended up slapping Cameron Cuffy's long hop hard but straight to Wavell Hinds at point.

Hinds, West Indies' best fielder over the two days, especially on Day 1 when he made several sprawling saves in the outfield, gleefully accepted the catch with Ganguly five short of his 50.

Dravid had attempted nothing rash for the 50 minutes in which he eked out only five runs to add to his overnight 86 until he chopped Dillon into his stumps.

He stopped in disbelief, paused for a second and asked himself what he had done wrong, then kicked the turf before walking off with a 90-something next to his name for the fifth time in Test cricket.

It was somewhat of a surprise that Anil Kumble emerged from the pavilion to take the No. 7 slot, perhaps two notches higher than he is suited for.

Predictably, Dillon peppered him with a few nasty deliveries, one of which crashed into the grill of the helmet after Kumble completely took his eyes off the ball. Clearly stunned, he spat blood, but was brave enough to continue.

Kumble lasted 20 minutes before he inevitably fended off another delivery on the body around the corner and into the waiting hands of Shivnarine Chanderpaul at backward short-leg.