Lara's ideal birthday present
At the end of his epic innings in Antigua last month, Brian Lara said that he would have gladly traded in his world record in return for a West Indian victory. Well, at Beausejour today, and on his 35th birthday to boot, he produced an innings of great responsibility that blended perfectly into a clinical team performance. Whatever happens in the final match in Barbados this week, West Indies are ensured of at least a share of this one-day series. It is a small consolation, perhaps, but the conch-blowing home supporters didn't seem to object too much.
After three washouts and two heists - one for each team - today's match followed a more sedate pattern. There were none of the Trescothick-fuelled fireworks that lit up the early stages of England's innings on Saturday; just a gentle rise in tempo, culminating in Andrew Flintoff and Paul Collingwood's all-too-brief assault, and a gradual loss of momentum, as Merv Dillon and Chris Gayle stifled the tail. As the teams trooped off the field at the mid-innings break, Michael Vaughan stared impassively out of the dressing-room window. His mood was not enhanced by the ice-pack strapped to his shoulder, but his body language spoke volumes nonetheless. After failing to defend 281 yesterday, the writing was already on the wall.
As the England management have been at pains to point out all series, this winter has been a write-off in terms of judging the progress of their one-day squad, so there is little point in quibbling about the balance of the side. Suffice to say, Andrew Strauss did everything that was asked of him in what amounted to his second meaningful one-day innings, while Rikki Clarke will always be worth his place in the side if he can keep conjuring wickets from pies. His first-ball dismissal of Shivnarine Chanderpaul was reminiscent of his maiden international delivery against Pakistan last summer, when Imran Nazir carved a similar long-hop to backward point.
But on this evidence, England will need something extra-special in Barbados on Wednesday, if they are to draw level in a series that seemed to have been wrapped up after the first match in Guyana. On the plus side, England's weak links in the Test series - Marcus Trescothick and Michael Vaughan - are suddenly remembering their responsibilities in a young and inexperienced team, but ominously, so are the West Indian veterans.
Lara was not alone in being anonymous while the Test series was still alive. Chanderpaul and Ramnaresh Sarwan were equally culpable - if not more so. But all of a sudden, a Test team that had appeared in crisis has morphed into a one-day side that boasts the perfect blend of youth and experience. Chanderpaul's astonishing assault on Darren Gough - clipping and cracking him for 15 runs in an over early in the West Indian reply - launched the innings with aplomb, but it was the 20-year-old Dwayne Bravo's cool-headed finishing that caught the eye. Hot-headedness is not a prerequisite for selection in this team.
England were undoubtedly off-colour in the field - in stark contrast to an electrified West Indian effort. Andrew Flintoff looked particularly drained, Steve Harmison reverted to his former wide-ridden self, while Gough's ready grin was slightly less forthcoming than usual. His final figures of 1 for 67 from 8.1 overs made his recent statements about the 2007 World Cup look decidedly optimistic.
But it was a handsome and well-deserved victory for West Indies, and judging by the partying in the stands afterwards, Lara's birthday party promises to be unmissable.