February 10, 2009

Caribbean delight at rare victory

Everywhere in Kingston, West Indians had smiles on their faces and springs in their steps


A rare win has spread joy in the Caribbean © AFP
 

The day after the latest Sabina sensation, euphoria hung as thick in the Kingston air as had depression five years ago when the collapse and the crushing defeat were the other way around.

Everywhere in the Pegasus Hotel, home for the past week of the team whose thumping victory over England in the first Test set off the celebrations the previous afternoon, West Indians had smiles on their faces and springs in their steps.

Waiters, barmen and even house maids, whose preferred sporting topics of conversation had long since switched from cheerless cricket to the Reggae Boys [Jamaica's football team] and, more recently, to Usain Bolt and Jamaica's other track stars, were raving about Chris [Gayle], Jerome [Taylor], Sars [Ramnaresh Sarwan], Sulieman [Benn] ("but how 'im tall so"), the "boy" Nash and the other heroes.

Sabina, after all, was the scene of the greatest indignity in a decade of indignities. In the corresponding match in 2004, West Indies were routed by England for their lowest total in Test cricket, 47, and thrashed by ten wickets.

The virtually identical role reversal, as England were swept aside for 51 by Jerome Taylor's irresistible fast swing and cut and beaten by an innings and 23 runs, was sweet revenge indeed. It atoned not for 2004 alone but, if in smaller measure, for several other humblings at the hands of England since the last, distant West Indies triumph, also by an innings, at Edgbaston nine years ago.

For all the understandable joy, Chris Gayle, the unlikely captain whose stature grows by the match, sounded a timely caution after the game Saturday. "It is definitely a turning point but we don't know how big yet," he said. "We just have to wait until the series is finished".

He has turned many corners in his nine years in the team only to find that they lead right back to the rocky road of failure. The challenge now is to maintain the unswerving all-round proficiency that brought them victory at Sabina.

Gayle's first tour was to England in 2000. His Test debut was in the three-day triumph by an innings in the first Test. That was immediately followed by a succession of catastrophic defeats - 54 all out at Lord's, 61 all out at Leeds and beaten in two days, 125 all out at The Oval. In his debut Test as captain, he and five others at Sabina were in the XI in Port Elizabeth when South Africa were beaten for the first time in South Africa [by West Indies] just over a year ago, only for the remaining two Tests to be lost.

And if he is wondering whether it is possible to regroup after such a shock as England had on Saturday he doesn't have to go too far back for the answer. England's previous meltdown of such proportions was at the Queen's Park Oval in 1994 - catspraddled by Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh for 46. Two weeks later they were winning their first Test match at Kensington Oval in 59 years.

Five years on, also at Queen's Park, West Indies were routed by Australia for England's exact total here, 51, and smashed by more than 300 runs in the first Test. With captain Brian Lara to the fore, they proceeded to win the next by ten wickets and the third by one wicket.

The jubilation of the moment is justified and inevitable but so is Gayle's caution. Even so, the evidence of the four days here is that the inconsistencies of the past are unlikely to recur. Gayle's second successive hundred confirmed the maturity he brought to his batting in New Zealand. He leads from the front and his men clearly play for him. Ramnaresh Sarwan's hundred should have swept away whatever troubles led to his carelessness in that series. He fills a crucial position at No. 3, as does Brendan Nash at No. 6 where his doggedness has given the brittle lower order some necessary steel.

The bowling finally has proper balance with the inclusion of a spinner. While not all pitches will be as helpful as Sabina's, Sulieman Benn's confidence would have soared with his success here. As for Taylor, his brilliant spell should prove the defining passage in a career that, until now, had not touched the height of which he has always been capable.

A partner for Gayle and a reliable No. 4 are still two glaring problem areas. There are options for the selectors, namely Ryan Hinds, for all his background of injuries and withdrawals, and Lendl Simmons, who are in the runs. More might well come to the fore before the series is over.

For the moment and, for once, team changes are not uppermost in the minds of West Indians rejoicing in a rare result.

Tony Cozier has written about and commentated on cricket in the Caribbean for nearly 50 years

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