The confounding West Indies
Licks by an innings inside three days.
That was my expectation after Andrew Strauss won the toss and put West Indies in to bat on the opening morning of this first Test at Lord's last Thursday. So what are we to make of this then?
Not only has the regional side confounded most predictions (including their own head coach, remember?) in taking this opening fixture of the three-match series into a fifth day, it has at least given itself a chance of pulling off a shock victory with England resuming this morning at 10 for two in pursuit of what is already shaping up to be a tricky target of 191.
For those who like to play with numbers and speculate on coincidences, that total of 191 was also what the English scrambled to reach against the Caribbean side in the Lord's Test of 2000, a two-wicket win despite the heroics of Courtney Walsh (six for 74) and the menacing support of Curtly Ambrose. Then, of course, the context was very different.
Even though West Indies were already well into what has developed into a deep and protracted decline, the result turned the series around after the English were crushed by an innings and 93 runs in less than three days in the series opener at Edgbaston. The hosts went on to win the series 3-1, reclaiming the Wisden Trophy for the first time in 27 years, inflicting a soul-destroying defeat in less than two days on the Jimmy Adams-led side at Headingley along the way.
Now it's England who are the overwhelming favourites to sweep the series, and most will believe they still have the batting quality and winning habit to prevail today, even if they start the final morning closer to a Test match defeat on home soil to West Indies since that occasion 12 years ago when feisty allrounder Dominic Cork found an able partner in Darren Gough -- they put on 31 runs in an unbroken ninth-wicket stand -- and smashed the winning boundary off Walsh late on the third day to significantly shift the momentum of the series.
So, should we feel the warm glow of satisfaction after the team's effort on a bitterly cold fourth day, even if it's the hosts who are still tipped to be one-up going into the second Test starting on Friday in Nottingham? Is it enough to commend Darren Sammy's men for having exceeded most expectations, even if the end result is still depressingly the same, as it was for two of the three Tests against Australia last month?
As painful as it is to accept, the answer to both questions must be "yes." No doubt there are many of you diehards bristling at the very notion that a team which reigned over the international game like no other and produced some of its very greatest exponents should now be reduced to acknowledging minor successes in a lost battle. Quite understandably, you refuse to accept that the same West Indies who gave the world the majestic batsmanship of Headley, Sobers, Richards and Lara and the match-winning bowling skills of Ramadhin, Hall, Roberts and Marshall could have been reduced to such distressing ordinariness so quickly.
Well, with the exception of the redoubtable Shivnarine Chanderpaul, every other contemporary West Indies cricketer has grown accustomed to defeat at Test level. Victories have been so few and so very far between that those very rare moments against reputable opponents have almost no impact on the collective psyche. Just as there once was an expectation of victory even from the most difficult of circumstances, now the default position is that West Indies will still lose no matter how close they get to winning.
Should they break through that psychological barrier and -- stunningly -- take the first Test today, then credit must be given to Ottis Gibson in his quest to rebuild a culture of discipline and commitment in the regional side, although the exclusion of a few notables from the reconstruction process are viewed in some quarters as a sign of the head coach's own weakness and insecurity when it comes to managing strong-willed individuals.
Gibson, Sammy and those on their side of the divide (because that's what we seem to live for -- the "us and them" adversarial dynamic) need to appreciate though that should success come today, there is still a very long, long way to go on the road to rehabilitation. Look, the only Test triumph on foreign soil against reputable opposition since Edgbaston 2000 was the Boxing Day 2007 series opener against South Africa in Port Elizabeth when Chris Gayle was at the helm.
It is the same Gayle who is now ostracised from the team, having contributed significantly to his own alienation. And while this column opened with the coincidence of England's target today and 12 years ago at the spiritual headquarters of the game, it is interesting to note that at the same time that Chanderpaul and Marlon Samuels were involved in prolonged and resolute defiance yesterday, Gayle's Royal Challengers Bangalore team was stumbling at the final hurdle, failing to reach the final four of the IPL despite a blistering, but brief, opening against Deccan Chargers by the most destructive batsman in the fifth season of the IPL.
Not that we need any reminding, but sport is indeed a great leveller. Wouldn't it be wonderful though for us to get carried away, however briefly, on the wings of victory today?
Fazeer Mohammed is a writer and broadcaster in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad