March 21, 2000

Zimbabwe in West Indies: Amazing pace

Port-Of-Spain - The age of miracles is not over for West Indies cricket, not as long as Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh are around to inspire them.

The two phenomenal veterans were once more at the heart of the latest wonder at the Queen's Park Oval yesterday as the West Indies turned almost certain defeat into incredible victory by 35 runs in their inaugural Test against Zimbabwe.

This time, they were not alone in defying the laws of logic. Their younger accomplices, Franklyn Rose and Reon King, were equally responsible for completing the seemingly impossible mission of defending a winning target of 99.

All contributed to routing the limited, but determined, Zimbabweans quarter-hour before tea for 63, the lowest total in their 40 Tests.

The significance of the unlikely triumph was unmistakable in the emotional outpourings among the 11 West Indians on the field and the thousand or so faithful scattered around the Oval once Ambrose completed the result by knocking back last man Pom Mbangwa's off-stump.

It brought back memories of similar celebrations after a similarly unexpected victory over South Africa, achieved by Ambrose and Walsh, at boycotted Kensington Oval in 1992.

The players joyfully grabbed souvenir stumps, hugged each other and assembled in a huddle around new captain, Jimmy Adams, for a silent prayer. They then set off on a lap of honour around the famous ground to show their appreciation to the few diehards who had come to support them.

It was a direct contrast to the atmosphere of a year earlier when the West Indies were the ones dismissed for their lowest Test total, 51, and left distraught by numbing defeat by Australia.

Now, in the space of four hours, the gloom that has settled over West Indies cricket as one defeat and one controversy has followed another was lifted by the never-say-die attitude of a revamped team with a new captain, a new coach and a new manager and without its one world-class batsman, Brian Lara.

When Adams finally returned to the pavilion, Lara, who had resigned as captain three weeks ago and chosen to take 'a break for a short period', was waiting with a knowing embrace. He watched the drama unfold, day by day, often from the players' area where he lent his support and advice.

The effect of his absence on the field was obvious in the limp West Indies batting collapses to totals of 197 and 147, but it might just have had an indirect effect on the renewed fighting spirit.

It was a depressing reversal for the Zimbabweans, seeking their second overseas win, and fourth overall, since their elevation to Test status in 1992.

They had played disciplined, competitive cricket throughout but could not finally muster the resources to resist high-quality bowling.

Only one team in the history of Test cricket had won after setting such a modest target, Australia bowling England out for 77 at the Oval in 1882 when they needed 85.

For Ambrose and Walsh - and Rose too - such escapes were not unknown.

Ambrose and Walsh famously routed South Africa in their inaugural Test in Barbados in 1992 by taking their last eight wickets for 26 on the final day when only 79 were needed.

Queen's Park is the ground where the deadly duo dismissed England for 46, their lowest Test total, needing a modest 188 in 1994.

In 1997, in Barbados, Walsh was absent when India were set 120 to win, so Rose took the first three wickets and Ambrose and Ian Bishop the others to finish them off for 81.

Most West Indians, for whom humbling losses have become commonplace of late, might have given up the ghost when their team did not add to their overnight total before Heath Streak claimed his fifth wicket of the innings and his ninth for the match by disposing of last man King. Adams had not.

'This match is not over yet and we are still in it as long as our four main bowlers keep a good length and line,' he said before the start.

Ambrose, Walsh, King and Rose confirmed his optimism.

They did not bowl an identifiable bad ball as the Zimbabweans struggled against pace that consistently probed around off-stump to capitalise on a pitch offering occasional movement and low bounce.

They conceded only one boundary in the 47 overs it took to complete their demise and that was Grant Flower's edge through a gap in the slips off the persistent Rose.

The West Indies were also indebted to the alert ground fielding in which Wavell Hinds and Adrian Griffith made several acrobatic saves.

Zimbabwe's problems started in the fourth over when left-hander Neil Johnson slapped a catch to cover off Walsh.

It was an immediate boost for the West Indies and they never offered any respite after that.

Only opener Grant Flower passed double-figures and his 26 lasted two hours, 50 minutes and 126 balls before he was undone by an unplayable off-cutter from Walsh that kept low and hit off-stump.

As he left, disconsolate, he gave a parting swat with the bat at the other stumps.

The wicket carried Walsh to within five of surpassing Kapil Dev's Test record 434 wickets and, while he didn't take another, his native Sabina Park, in Jamaica, waits to crown him as the new king in the second Test starting Friday.

By the time Grant Flower departed, 40 minutes after lunch, King and Rose had ripped the heart out of the middle-order and the impetus was unstoppable.

King claimed Trevor Gripper lbw with one of his several wicked deliveries, and Rose, moving the ball both ways, accounted for Murray Goodwin, Andy Flower and Stuart Carlisle to edged catches to wicket-keeper Ridley Jacobs and Heath Streak to a clearcut lbw decision on either side of lunch.

It left Ambrose to complete the job and, when Adams called on him for a second spell in place of Rose, he needed only 13 balls to despatch the last of the specialist batsmen, Alistair Campbell, and the tail-end fast bowlers, Henry Olonga and Mbagwa.

It was all second nature to the tall Antiguan.