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May 23, 2007
Given the number of nerve-wracking, frequently doomed last days that West Indies have endured in recent times, Monday's wet weather that restricted play to 20 overs and settled the first Test as a draw came as welcome relief. Yet, as Chris Gayle and Daren Ganga competently compiled their unbroken opening stand of 89, there was the growing sense that, even on a fine day, the script would have been different to what it has so often been over the past year or so.
At Auckland against New Zealand, in Antigua against India and at Lahore and Karachi against Pakistan last year, nervous second-innings batting led to defeat or, in the case of Antigua, to Fidel Edwards and Corey Collymore grimly hanging on for the last 19 balls for a draw. At Lord's, there was an unmistakable hint that old uncertainty had been replaced by new resolve.
Even after a reduced opening day on which England compiled 200 for 3 after they were put in by Ramnaresh Sarwan in grey, damp conditions, supposedly ideal for bowling, the headline over the former England captain Nasser Hussain's newspaper report read: "They're not good enough but at least they're fighting".
Midway through the third day, when they were 187 for 5 following the four individual hundreds that pushed England to 553 for 5 declared, whatever fight Hussain and others had detected was severely tested. Now, surely, a team under brand new leadership, without its one great batsman, just out of a disastrous World Cup tournament at home and with no pre-Test preparation would stagger.
The response of the last half of the order, from the ever-reliable Shivnarine Chanderpaul at No.6 to Jerome Taylor at No.10, defied expectations. To each his own: Chanderpaul provided the solidity at one end while Dwayne Bravo and Denesh Ramdin free-wheeled at the other as they did in their partnership of 182 against Australia at Hobart in 2005. Most noticeably, Ramdin's favoured, suicidal sweep shot, so often his downfall, was not in evidence in his sparkling 60. So emboldened, Daren Powell and Taylor similarly took to the bowlers the following day.
It was a boon to West Indian spirits so crushed after the World Cup. As Bravo and Sarwan both noted, it was a team effort. It is not a phrase usually associated with the West Indies in recent times. Without Lara's runs, on whom they so heavily relied, even if unconsciously, the need for shared responsibility has quickly sunk in.
There was, too, a refreshing camaraderie on the field and in the dressing-room as well. It was similar to the attitude of the second-string side in Sri Lanka two years ago that was decimated by the withdrawals of the leading players over a contract row with the board. They were clearly outclassed but they never gave up. It is often the consequence of adversity.
A friend of mine, an MCC member whose seat in the pavilion was directly beneath the West Indies' dressing-room balcony, said he had seldom heard such constant and enthusiastic encouragement for their teammates on the field.
Not everything was pleasing, of course, and England's bowling problems need to be factored into the optimism. The one-dimensional attack lacked control and penetration, crucial catches were dropped and Ramdin's keeping was scrappy. Each deficiency might have been a result of the lack of practice, match and otherwise, but there are only three days before the second Test at Headingley to get them right. Even then, it is difficult to imagine England being bowled out twice on good pitches.
The absence of Andrew Flintoff, the muscle strain that restricted Matthew Hoggard to 10.5 overs, and the wild offerings of Steve Harmison and Liam Plunkett on a slow pitch were unforeseen benefits for West Indies. Hoggard is unlikely to return for the series and Flintoff's chronic ankle injury is a limitation, even if he is passed for Friday.
More significantly, Harmison was a shadow of the menace he was in the back-to-back series in the Caribbean and here in 2004 when he, Flintoff, Hoggard and Simon Jones (now also missing with injury) bowled West Indies to defeat in seven of the eight Tests.
England sprung a surprise by replacing Hoggard with Ryan Sidebottom for the second Test. Sidebottom is 29 and played his only Test six years ago. The point is that he is a left-arm swing bowler who will bring variety to the attack, a point overlooked by the West Indies selectors in the omission of Pedro Collins from their squad. But their reasons, apparently, were more than simply cricketing.
Michael Vaughan, the captain who missed the first Test with a broken finger and has not played a Test for a year and a half because of one injury or another, and Flintoff are both in the 13. But they need to prove they are fit enough by Friday.
In the meantime, the West Indies team travelled to Leeds yesterday, happier and more confident than they were when they entered the series last Thursday. The challenge is to maintain the self-belief and the team spirit over the three Tests, two Twenty20 Internationals and three ODIs that lay ahead. The early signs are hopeful.
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