Hinds gives India a break
A moment of unforgivable thoughtlessness slackened a tightening West Indies stranglehold late on the opening day of the fifth, decisive Cable & Wireless Test yesterday.
Wavell Hinds' wanton stroke that ended an innings of flawless quality and aggression for 113 breathed new life into an Indian team that was then barely registering a heartbeat.
Their supposed advantage of bowling first on the well-grassed Sabina Park pitch had long since disappeared at 264 for one as Hinds followed a commanding opening partnership of 111 with his fellow Jamaican left-hander Chris Gayle with another of 135 for the second wicket with the stylish right-hander Ramnaresh Sarwan.
All day, the 10 000 or so in the stands had celebrated the powerful strokeplay of the two Jamaicans and the touch of Sarwan.
They were prepared for more when, with 22 overs remaining and a fielder pointedly stationed on the long-off boundary three overs earlier, Hinds stepped out to off-spinner Harbhajan Singh and aimed for his third six in the same direction.
This time, the ball settled in Wasim Jaffer's lap ten yards or so short of its intended target.
Sabina's din was transformed into stunned silence. It did not return until fading light brought a premature end with three overs scheduled. By then, Brian Lara and Ramnaresh Sarwan had gone as well and the West Indies were 287 for four.
If Hinds did not, everyone knew that he had the Indians at his mercy. For almost five hours, he had not made a single mistake confident drives, sweeps and strokes off his legs accounting for the 14 fours he added to his two sixes.
As he trudged back to the pavilion, the remorse etched all over his face revealed that he knew he presented an unearned wicket.
On the way in, he passed Lara heading in the opposite direction.
This was the right time for the premier West Indies batsman to put an unsatisfactory series average of 30 behind him and to play as only he can. But Lara has been a pale imitation of himself since the four-month lay-off necessitated by his elbow injury in December.
Once more, he scratched around, eking out nine unconvincing runs in a half-hour. His dismissal seemed likely any ball and came off his 25th, an edge to the keeper as he felt for one outside off-stump from the left-arm swing bowler Ashish Nehra.
When Sarwan was caught at leg-slip from a thin inside-edge onto pad off Harbhajan's off-break in the next over for 65 his fourth score between 50 and 65 in the series the spring that had been squeezed out of the Indian step from early in the day suddenly reappeared.
Had Shiv Sunder Das held on to captain Carl Hooper's driven catch at extra-cover off Nehra 14 runs later, India's fightback would have been nearly complete.
It could be an expensive error. Hooper, ten at the time, has made the most of his several chances in the series, so that he came into the match with three hundreds and 556 runs in the previous four Tests.
He saw out the day at 14. His partner is the left-hander Shivnarine Chanderpaul, who has also had three hundreds in the series and with whom he has shared stands of 293 in the first Test, 215 in the third and 186 in the fourth.
It requires something similar if the total is to reach the heights of 500 that did not seem far-fetched when Hinds, Gayle and Sarwan were in full flight.
As Hinds and Gayle shared the best opening stand of the series, for either side, and Hinds built on it with Sarwan, the Indians became increasingly frayed at the edges and ragged in the field.
They seemed clueless as to where their next wicket would come from as captain Sourav Ganguly swung his changes and shifted his fielders. At one point in mid-afternoon, he trundled his unthreatening medium-pace to seven defenders on the off-side.
Seduced by the greenery not even the oldest locals could remember covering a Sabina pitch, Ganguly chose to bowl on calling heads and winning the toss for the first time in the series.
But the veteran Javagal Srinath and his two young left-arm accomplices, Nehra and Zaheer Khan, sprayed the new ball in all directions except where it was likely to create any damage.
Gayle spent 30 balls over his first three runs, carefully assessing the situation and he and Hinds saw out six successive maidens in the first eight overs.
Once they were convinced there were no devils in either the pitch or the bowling, they opened their shoulders and put the bat to the loose stuff on offer.
By lunch, they had accelerated to 88, Gayle moving from three to 55 at run-a-ball rate, Hinds carrying 32 runs into the interval.
On resumption, the cramp that occasionally hobbles Gayle in the middle such as in the second innings of the second Test when he had to retire brought trainer Ronald Rogers onto the field.
It is impossible to assess the effect it had on Gayle's mobility. But he added only 13 on resumption, including two spanking off-side fours off Zaheer, before he steered the same bowler to gully.
Gayle's 68 from 105 balls had 13 fours as the main scoring strokes but it made no difference to the West Indies' deliberately aggressive approach.
Sarwan was quickly out of the blocks with deft leg-glances and wristy off-side strokes, while Hinds intentionally went after Harbhajan, stepping out to twice clout him over unprotected long-off for sixes and through mid-wicket for fours.
For variation, he also swept him for a couple of boundaries.
He arrived at his 100 at 227 in the 65th over, justifiably rejoicing as he completed the relevant run.
He has gone through difficult times since he came into the team as Man Of The Series against Pakistan two years ago and, if the manner of his dismissal was immature, he has batted with distinction on his return, both in Antigua and now here.
It was only a pity that his ambitions didn't extend to a double-century, for it was surely not out of the question.