Can West Indies clear the psychological hurdle?
Even more than confident opponents, West Indies face a formidable psychological barrier entering the second Test against New Zealand at the Basin Reserve tomorrow. It was erected in the few hours it took for certain victory to turn into stunning defeat in the first Test at Auckland's Eden Park on Sunday, the implications of which were spelled out yesterday by Chris Gayle.
"Devastating" was the word he used twice to explain the effect of the collapse from the opening partnership of 148 between himself and Daren Ganga to 263 all out that left West Indies 27 runs short of their winning goal. "If you dropped a pin you could hear it," was how Gayle put it. "It was a shock, you couldn't believe it. It was devastating."
"I'm a person who is expressionless sometimes," Gayle noted, with not a little understatement. "But it really hurts inside to go about losing a game. It is devastating to everyone. Every day you have to go to the drawing board and try to work out when the turnaround for West Indies cricket will be," he added. "We still have a lot of cricket to play, we still have a lot of talent there and we still can get the job done."
In the interim, there has been the further setback of the loss of Ramnaresh Sarwan, a quality batsman in the pivotal No.3 position with a healthy average of 40 in his 59 Tests. Runako Morton, the standout in the preceding one-day internationals, gets the chance his form deserved, but team balance denied, in Auckland. Morton, the 27-year-old Nevisian, is a tough competitor for whom marriage and renewed religious convictions have combined to turn around a troubled career. His fielding, especially at slip, enhance his batting but, with only two Tests to his name, he lacks Sarwan's experience.
The left hamstring strain that restricted Jerome Taylor to eight overs in Auckland has also ruled him out of consideration here. He is a young fast bowler of considerable promise but, with only four Tests spread over three years, his replacement by Daren Powell, won't diminish an attack short of experience. It is not personnel changes that will determine the level of the West Indies' performance as much as how they respond to the "devastating" events of only a few days ago. Gayle's forthright assessment of the mood in the camp at the moment of defeat in Auckland revealed the natural, initial reaction. It was as much to say that if they couldn't win from a position of such strength, then they would never win. In the three days leading up to this Test, the main task of Bennett King, WestIndies' coach, and his staff and Shivnarine Chanderpaul, the captain, and his senior men was obvious. It was to persuade the players to take the more positive view that, in Auckland, they put themselves in an excellent position to defeat opponents with home advantage, three places higher than them on the ICC Test ratings and overwhelming favourites at the start. They can, therefore, do so again.
King - now more relaxed following the predictable conclusions of the unnecessary and distracting Hendriks Report - commented after Auckland that they did not seize the moments when they were repeatedly presented with in Auckland. It is the weakness of all sporting teams unaccustomed to winning and few are as unaccustomed as the West Indies recently. A record of nine defeats in 12 Tests, the last seven in succession, leaves mental scars not easily erased. It is why the first Test result was even more demoralising than all the others. Victory would have been an incalculable fillip to self-belief, even the "turning point" Brian Lara predicted before the series . Lara spoke enthusiastically then of "a hunger in the team". He said he sensed that the players were "embarrassed" by their performances in their 4-1 loss in the ODI series and noted a "very firm belief" that they could compete against New Zealand. That hunger and belief were clearly minimised by the first Test defeat.
By reputation, record and sheer force of personality, Lara is the likeliest catalyst to restoring them. He was more visibly and audibly involved than usual in Auckland, with tactical discussions with Chanderpaul and Sarwan and in cheer-leading in the field. The defeat, his double-failure with the bat and his dismissal by Shane Bond with the only two balls he received from the fast bowler were indignities enough to intensify his competitive edge. As history shows, the best from Lara does not necessarily translate into a team triumph but another double-hundred would not be out of place over the next five days.
Nor would even half that for Chanderpaul. The beleaguered skipper has been unfairly burdened with a job for which he is not suited and in which he is clearly uncomfortable. It has diverted his focus from what he does best, score runs so consistently that he averages 43. The upshot is that he has not managed a half-century in his last 11 Test innings. Such a decline impinges of any leader's authority, as the West Indies well know from their own tactic of targeting the opposition captain during the glory days under Clive Lloyd. Certainly, Chanderpaul has become less and less assured in both his roles.
Lara, Chanderpaul and all the batsmen should find conditions more sympathetic to their cause than Auckland's which offered movement through the air and off a pitch of variable pace so that totals were between 257 and 275 and only so many through missed catches on both sides and West Indies' inability to seize their moments.