April 22, 2003

Mission not-entirely-impossible

Second Test, Day 4

Nasser Hussain would sympathise. Against this Aussie vintage, it is tough enough to rack your brains for a Plan A, let alone cobble together a Plan B when the injuries and premature retirements start to kick in. And sure enough, by the end of yet another day of effortless Australian dominance, which began with a barely noticed century for Matthew Hayden, and finished with Stuart MacGill ripping the ball like a strongman's telephone directory, West Indies were 300 runs and a million miles from salvaging the match.

And yet, where Brian Lara remains, so too does hope. His heroics in 1998-99 have dominated the West Indian psyche in this series as surely as Ian Botham dominated England's, post-1981. And then as now, the impact has been largely negative - success, it seems, is 99% inspiration, and 1% perspiration. Against Steve Waugh's Australians, however, that attitude might be disturbingly close to the truth.

West Indies have had two recent and contrasting precedents to guide them in this match, and both involve England. The first was at Brisbane last November, when in the face of an injury crisis, Hussain bullishly picked a team with five bowlers and six batsmen, only to fall immediately onto the defensive by choosing to bowl first on a belter. The second came eighteen months earlier at Headingley, when Adam Gilchrist, desperate to avoid a draw, got a little too cute with his declaration after England had been battered into submission for four days, and an enigmatic, stroke-playing lefthander (for Lara, read Mark Butcher) did the rest.

That first lesson has already been taken to heart. With at least four first-choice players missing, there was nothing remotely bullish about the West Indian selection for this match - even Bangladesh would have been hard-pressed to be less attacking in the field. Three seamers, Dave Bernard's 75mph peashooters and a host of ropey spinners managed three legitimate wickets in 200 overs, and owed the other four to umpire Asoka de Silva, who pulled off three dodgy lbws, as well as hoodwinking Ricky Ponting into a stumping by gazing towards the fine-leg boundary when the ball had nestled in the keeper's gloves.

As for the second lesson, well, only time - and MacGill's duel with Lara - will tell. But suddenly, against a side that fears the draw as irrationally as an elephant fears a mouse, a method is beginning to emerge from the madness. If (with a microscopic `i') Lara, Sarwan, Samuels, Bernard, Baugh and Drakes pull off the impossible, it would represent the greatest heist in the history of Test cricket, but by farting in the face of convention and ignoring all need for wickets, West Indies have somehow equipped themselves with the right tools for the job.

MacGill's first four overs this evening suggest that surviving until lunch will be a feat in itself, but MacGill is no Warne, and Lara's only true nemesis, Glenn McGrath, is also missing from this match. In fact Australia are so undermanned in this series that they have even resorted to five bowlers for the first time since their run of invincibility began. Of course, that's hardly an admission of weakness when Waugh himself is not required to bat, but it is nevertheless a clear break with recent tradition.

Under Waugh's bloodyminded leadership, and with John Buchanan's mind-expanding presence lurking in the background, convention has long since flown out of the Australian window, and it has taken a recordbreaking run of defeats for the rest of the world to take the plunge as well. It may be clutching at straws to suggest that West Indies have a hope of winning this match, but that has been said of just about every defeat inflicted on Australia in the last four years, from Bridgetown and Kingston via Kolkata and Headingley. In overcoming these titans, defence may yet prove to be the best form of attack.

Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Wisden Crininfo in London