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June 13, 2007
Like its football namesake no more than half-mile away, cricket's Old Trafford produced a game of two halves, albeit over five days and 14 sessions, in the curious Third Test.
Midway through the third day, the result was all but decided. England, fully assisted by shambolic fielding and against the gentle bowling of Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Chris Gayle, were 250 ahead and coasting with only two second innings wickets lost.
Down the road at Manchester United that would have equated to a 5-0 half-time lead for the home team with no way back for the beleaguered opponents. And there could have been no more beleaguered opponents than West Indies. Thrashed in their previous meeting ten days earlier by the heaviest margin of defeat in their 79 years of Test cricket and still without their appointed, injured leader, their on-field woes were compounded by habitual problems outside their control.
A very public spat back home between the board and its selectors over captaincy and an extraordinary letter of complaint from a recently-reinstated reserve player against the coach, that inevitably found its way onto the internet, were typically unwanted distractions that are now an integral part of West Indies cricket culture.
Another humiliating trouncing was surely unavoidable, especially after the loss of the toss meant West Indies had to contend with the worst of the deteriorating conditions, as they did in the previous Test at Leeds. The supposition proved wide of the mark. It was to be an entirely different second half.
The early hint of a new team spirit, evidenced in the drawn first Test, had not entirely vanished after all. For all the adversity, this weakened, derided team roused itself to fight back.
Inspired, first by the seven wickets of Darren Sammy, the newest member of the team, and then by an exceptional innings by Chanderpaul, the oldest, most experienced and most dependable, they clawed their way back into the reckoning so that an amazing, record victory was feasible even as far as lunch on the final day. In the end, a winning target of 455, never achieved in any Test, proved just out of reach and they fell 60 runs short.
The final whistle went, so to speak, at 5-4 with Michael Vaughan, the England captain, conceding that the West Indies were "only one partnership away" from surpassing their own record, winning Test total of 418 for seven, against Australia in Antigua four years ago. It was an achievement that should rekindle self-belief.
It has surely regained some of the respect that diminished to all but nothing after the loss at Leeds and in the first half in this match. All the same, the outcome was another defeat, securing for England the Wisden Trophy, a prize once held by the West Indies for 27 years and 13 series but in England's hands for four series now since 2000.
In view of events immediately following the World Cup - the imposed retirement of Brian Lara and the resignation of coach Bennett King specifically - it seemed that this was a tour West Indies could do without.
Time was needed to reflect and regroup, to assemble a squad and prepare it physically, mentally and physically for the next three daunting series- South Africa in South Africa in December and January, Sri Lanka and Australia at home next March through June - and beyond.
The injuries to new captain Ramnaresh Sarwan and Chanderpaul at Leeds that removed the two best batsmen and reduced the team to ten men, allied to the alien weather and conditions, amounted to undeserved misfortune.
As it is, such adversity has given the selectors a further guide to the character of those they must depend on in the immediate future. Chanderpaul's was never in question. He is not known as "Tiger" for nothing. There is no grittier fighter in the game and, with Lara now gone, he must be the hub of the batting.
It is a responsibility he has recognised and taken on in his own, steady, unspectacular way, holding things together with the topscore in each of his three innings. His influence was sorely missed at Leeds. He rated his unbeaten 116, that occupied seven persevering hours over the last two days at Old Trafford, as the finest of his 15 Test hundreds.
Vaughan said he couldn't remember a better innings. In the circumstances and conditions, neither can I. This was a truly treacherous pitch. It was hard as concrete so the ball bounced for fast bowlers and for the only decent spinner in the match, Monty Panesar.
Gloves and forearms held low were always threatened when Panesar landed his left-arm spin in the bowlers' footmarks from over the wicket. Not only Fidel Edwards (improving in pace and control with every spell), Steve Harmison (ditto) and Dwayne Bravo scored hits to the helmet. So did Panesar, to Chanderpaul on the last day when he also got one delivery to jump over both Chanderpaul and wicket-keeper Matt Prior on its way for one of the 167 extras, the second most in a Test.
As a left-hander, the rough turf outside his off-stump presented particular problems for Chanderpaul. It simply made him concentrate all the harder. Devon Smith encountered the same difficulties and twice fell to close catches off Panesar but he stayed more than two hours each time for his 42 and 40.
Runako Morton's discipline for 54 in just under three hours in the second innings was a revelation, coming from the carefree strokemaker of Leeds. So was the second innings diligence demonstrated by Bravo, Denesh Ramdin, Sammy and Jerome Taylor.
Such efforts could not camouflage remaining problems. Chris Gayle's technical faults have been exposed as have Ganga's (lbw in each of his five innings). They have meant cheap early wickets, placing instant pressure on the middle order.
And decisions must soon be taken on how much longer can fast bowlers who miss catches and concede runs in the field and contribute nothing with the bat be accommodated. For the moment, the overused cliché that the team can take positives out of the loss has some validity. It will be put to the test in the final Test that starts Friday in Durham.
© Trinidad & Tobago Express
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