India v West Indies, 1st Test, New Delhi, 3rd day November 8, 2011

West Indies struggle to retain stranglehold

S Aga
The once-dominant West Indies has spent more than a decade unable to close out games, especially away from home

In 2006, after India had won the first one-day match of their Caribbean tour, Greg Chappell, then the India coach, raised hackles across the Caribbean by suggesting that the men in maroon had forgotten how to win. In the outrage that followed, the kernel of truth in the statement was forgotten.

The team that once put together the blueprint on how to dominate cricket matches has spent more than a decade unable to close out games, especially away from home.

The numbers don't lie. Since Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose - the last special products of a fast-bowling assembly line that lasted a quarter century - retired a decade ago, West Indies have won precisely one Test away from home against established opposition. That came in the Boxing Day Test of 2007, when a century from Shivnarine Chanderpaul and disciplined pace bowling from Daren Powell, Jerome Taylor, Dwayne Bravo and Fidel Edwards upset South Africa in Port Elizabeth.

There have been several near misses, especially in Sri Lanka and Australia in recent times. It hasn't been restricted to Test cricket either. Even during the World Cup earlier this year, they lost games against England and India that they could so easily have won. One poor decision led to another, and before you knew it, the game had slipped away.

When they came out to field a second time today, West Indies had every right to be confident, with the last three wickets having added 96 runs. Only twice had teams chased 276 or better in India, and the erratic bounce that ended Darren Sammy's sprightly innings would have interested pace bowler and spinner alike.

But the best laid bowling plans count for little when Virender Sehwag is at the crease. On a pitch that R Ashwin reckoned had nothing for batsmen or bowlers, he batted as though someplace else, cruising to a run-a-ball half-century before chopping the ball onto his stumps.

Had Ravi Rampaul held on to a difficult return catch when he had made just 12, the afternoon's play may well have panned out differently. Instead, the 100 came up quickly and Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar could ease their way into proceedings, removing much of the anxiety from the dressing room and stands alike.

"We didn't bowl as well as we had in the first innings," said Ottis Gibson, the coach. "The odd ball was keeping low, but we didn't hit the right areas as often as we'd like."

He remained confident, however, that a turnaround was possible. "We thought 276 was a good score to set," he said. "And things have happened in the morning session right through this match."

In Gibson's eyes, though, the West Indies could have easily have set India something in the region of 350. "I thought we could have been a little more positive, without being reckless," he said. "See the way Sehwag plays. He does it on every surface. But he's been playing 10 years. Our younger batsmen will also learn to read situations better."

The intent that Gibson spoke of was certainly in evidence when Chanderpaul and Sammy were batting, but those two aside, the first half of the day was all about Ashwin and his variations. "We know he's a quality spinner," said Gibson. "We've seen that from his performances in one-day cricket. He's brought that confidence into Tests. Some balls kept low, but he bowled wicket to wicket."

West Indies didn't early on, with Sehwag and Gambhir again getting India off to the ideal start. "It didn't look like the pitch was doing anything when Sehwag was batting," said Gibson with a rueful smile. "But nothing's gone to slip or gully the whole match and we felt we had to have a ring field to keep the runs down."

That tactic worked once Sehwag departed, but it's wickets rather than containment that West Indies need on the fourth morning. The morning papers will doubtless have endless references to the possibility of that 100th century, and perhaps Gibson can put some clippings on the dressing-room wall to rile his players. After all, Chappell's alleged barb did inspire four straight West Indian wins.