Lawson revives Windies pace tradition
The first Test crackled into life on the second morning. Not, as anticipated by some, by the blazing strokeplay of Sri Lanka's top-order in their much-loved home conditions, but by the pace and ferocity of West Indies' next generation pace attack. The star of the show was Jermaine Lawson, a true West Indian fast bowler: tall, strong, commanding and scarily fast. By his own admission he was simply concentrating on "putting the ball in the right places", but the speed gun was still regularly touching the 94mph mark. Not bad on a docile Sri Lankan pitch.
Sri Lanka's batsman batted poorly, but shaking out the cobwebs after a three-month break is not easy against men as swift as this, especially when your team-mates in the nets are at least 10mph slower. When the new ball was shiny and hard Lawson hurried all the top order, forcing Sanath Jayasuriya into jabbing defence and cracking Kumar Sangakkara painfully on the arm. At the other end Daren Powell was playing his part too, pounding in athletically during a menacing seven-over burst with the new ball. Sri Lanka slumped to 31 for 3 and West Indies' players whooped joyfully, their excitement heightened by the high odds stacked against them.
This is a second-string West Indies team, in fact a desperately poor West Indies team, but this is ostensibly because of their frail batting. Their young wicketkeeper, Denesh Ramdin, has shown himself ready for a long international future already, batting with composure and catching acrobatic behind the stumps, and their bowling has teeth. Lawson and Powell were highly impressive and Omari Banks, the offspinner, also plugged away diligently to claim two top-order scalps. Tino Best was the only weak link; his showboating bark was disproportionate to his bite. So while Sri Lanka's bowlers have an opportunity for rich pickings over the coming days, their batsmen will be on guard, quite literally.
Lawson's successful comeback to Test cricket will have been all the more pleasing for the hard road he has travelled. His triumphant arrival on the international scene in May 2003, when he took 7 for 78 to blow Australia away on a bowler's graveyard in Antigua, was swiftly followed by an ICC report into his action, which was deemed suspicious and in need of remodelling. He smoothed out the raggedness in his arm and returned - only then to be hit with a spinal stress fracture at the end of 2004, an injury that he has only just recovered from. So when he said afterwards that he was "happy with his comeback," you suspected that inside he was actually jumping with joy.
Caribbean cricket lovers should also be elated. There have been a long list of wannabe pace merchants in recent years, all keen to revive the island's rich tradition for scaring the living daylights out of opponents, but none can stand in the same street as the likes of Ambrose, Walsh, Marshall, Garner, Holding, Roberts and Co. But Lawson already stands apart after just 10 Tests, having gathered an average of four wickets per match at 29.67 before this one. The road ahead remains a long one, but at 23 years old and brimming with enthusiasm, he offers hope for those that lust after the site of limbo-dancing opening batsman.
Unfortunately, for West Indies fans, Lawson still looks likely to finish on the losing side, unless Shivnarine Chanderpaul can produce another eccentric gem of defiance on Friday. This is mainly due to Chaminda Vaas, Sri Lanka's own pace bowling hero, who led the home team's fightback with both bat and ball. While Lawson frightened, Vaas teased, rediscovering his rhythm with the second new ball and getting the ball to banana-swing once more. His four wickets in the day were classic Vaas: three lbws and one tailender clean bowled, all defeated by precisely pitched in-dippers.
But perhaps his batting was of even greater significance. In Tom Moody's first match as coach he was promoted to the No 7 position and granted proper allrounder status for the first time. He reacted sensibly and in his own words "put his head down", clearly delighted with the added responsibility. His partnerships with Rangana Herath (36 in 65 balls) and Muttiah Muralitharan (66 in 86 balls), whom he even persuaded to bat using his brain rather than pure adrenalin, an almost unheard-of feat, helped pull Sri Lanka back from the brink. At 113 for 7 West Indies' lead was probably insurmountable, but he narrowed it to a manageable 58 and allowed his team-mates to breath again.
It was a typical contribution from one of Sri Lanka's most professional players. The only hope is that it will not heighten his disturbing quest for the vice-captaincy, a small blackmark on an otherwise unblemished copybook. Vaas has ruffled feathers by his open desire for leadership responsibility, risking even the harmony of a team that thrives on togetherness and disintegrates under disunity. So far the selectors have stood firm on the issue, refusing to be bent by a behind-the-scenes campaign. One day, Vaas may thank them because he is better concentrating on what he does best: skilfully outwitting batsmen, grittily accumulating runs and playing his part as a senior pro. The risks of an official title, as Hashan Tillakaratne found out so painfully when his lack of leadership credentials were so graphically exposed, can be large.
Charlie Austin is Cricinfo's Sri Lankan correspondent