Clutching at straws
It has happened before and, if the likelihood seems far-fetched, it can happen again. The only three Tests the West Indies have won in their last three series against Australia have all sprung from a backdrop of seeming hopelessness. They find themselves in the same situation once again entering the second Test of the latest encounter that starts in the capital of Australia's island state on November 17.
It is the first between the teams at the Bellerive Oval, the ground overlooking the spectacular Derwent River, and another heavy loss to follow that by 379 runs in the first Test would not only secure the series and the Frank Worrell Trophy for Australia but further diminish the West Indies' reputation.
There was similar concern in the series in the Caribbean in 1999 and 2003. In the former, a couple of innings by Brian Lara, then captain, of which only he of modern West Indian batsmen is capable, turned a preceding 5-0 whitewash in South Africa and a rout by Australia by over 300 runs in the first Test into two successive victories and an eventual share of the series. Four years later, with the West Indies comprehensively beaten in all three earlier Tests, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, now captain, and Ramnaresh Sarwan, his deputy, fashioned hundreds that not only averted the predicted clean sweep but created history by amassing Test cricket's highest winning total of 418 for eight.
It will take similar sparks of inspiration to retrieve the ground lost in recent years. Several things must fall into place even for another numbing defeat to be avoided. Six years on from his unforgettable 213 at Sabina and his unbeaten 153 at Kensington, Lara has struggled to find his touch in the six weeks he has been in Australia, first for the World XI, then for the West Indies. He has taken time off since Brisbane, when he battled for scores of 30 and 16, but he remains competent enough, even at the age of 36, to conjure up some of his magic. It was only four months ago, after all, that he was reeling off four hundreds in five Tests in the Caribbean.
Chanderpaul, Sarwan and Chris Gayle have also found form elusive since their arrival in Australia but they all have the ability to suddenly produce an innings to lift a team seriously dispirited by the outcome of the first Test and the inept performance that followed in the three-day match last weekend against Victoria. Such stimulation could equally come from other sources. A dashing hundred from Devon Smith or Marlon Samuels and an incisive spell by one of the fast bowlers might even carry more weight than something from the established players.
Such hopes are, of course, clutching at straws but straws are all that are left for the West Indies to cling to. One innings or a six-wicket return alone won't be nearly enough. Lara couldn't do it on his own in 1999, Chanderpaul and Sarwan were not the only heroes in 2003. Nehemiah Perry (an off-spinner, it should be noted) took five wickets to bowl Australia out and Jimmy Adams shared a partnership of 322 at Sabina. Sherwin Campbell scored a first innings hundred and the bowlers kept the winning target manageable at Kensington. Jermaine Lawson's seven first innings wickets and Merv Dillon's second innings' four were vital four years later and the level-headedness of Omari Banks, in his second Test, and Vasbert Drakes carried the West Indies across the line.
For the West Indies to have any chance of pressing Australia this time it requires the same sort of input from everyone. In short, it demands a complete team effort. It is a concept that has been alien to the West Indies in recent times, more especially over the past year when arguments over sponsorship between the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) and the West Indies Players Association (WIPA) have created intractable divisions. Only if everyone pulls together and the captain receives the wholehearted support of everyone, even those who regard him as there by default, can opponents as strong and confident as Australia be hard-pressed. It would be a refreshing and overdue transformation if it happens but it should not be expected.
Only two months ago, Australia faced problems of their own, if not of the same magnitude. They had lost the Ashes, some of their stalwarts had failed them and Ricky Ponting's position as captain was under threat. They returned and regrouped. They have since disposed of the motley collection of stars parading as the World XI in three one-day internationals and the so-called Super Test and despatched the West Indies in four days.
Ponting has secured his role with hundreds in both innings in Brisbane and no one is questioning his captaincy now - although they wouldn't dare even if so minded in Hobart, for he is Tasmanian and is leading the Test team for the first time in his home island. Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne, Australia's perennial pair of destroyers, did the business with nine wickets between them in the first innings of the first Test. Their cohorts, Brett Lee and Nathan Brackern, did the same in the second. It presents itself as a team in every sense of the word and won't be beaten by anyone without plenty of effort and plenty of luck.
Chanderpaul has stated that it will be deliberate policy to pressure the several newer players in the Australian team. Mike Hussey, the opener, is in his second Test, Andrew Symonds, the all-rounder, returns for his third, Bracken is in his third, Brad Hodge is on debut. The theory sounds feasible until it is realised that Hodge, who plays his first Test a few weeks short of his 30th birthday, has over 12,000 first-class runs to his name and plastered the West Indies for 179 for Victoria last Friday.
Australia's decision on the final XI lies between Symonds's ability to bat at No.7 and bowl either offspin or medium pace, Bracken's left-arm swing and Stuart MacGill's legspin. "It looks a pretty sound deck and spinners give you more variation than stock standard bowlers," ground curator Cameron Hodgkins commented. "There isn't much of a tinge to it. It's not going to be overly fast. They [fast bowlers] won't scare anyone." It seems an argument for MacGill. The only West Indies' change is certain to be Dwayne Bravo for Jermaine Lawson, making the XI what it should have been in Brisbane. At least the tail won't be a hat-trick waiting to happen this time.