Weary Windies wary of resurgent Kiwis
There's no time for West Indies to lick their wounds and mull over a match in which they have been comprehensively outplayed by Australia, the runaway favourites for the World Cup. In less than 24 hours they will have to go through it all again - but this time against a side whose last encounter with the Aussies resulted in a memorable 3-0 victory. Stephen Fleming's New Zealanders are next on the agenda for West Indies, in a match that has suddenly assumed pivotal importance.
A second defeat in two days for West Indies will not condemn them to an early exit. Not yet at any rate. But victory for the Kiwis will in all probability send them hurtling towards one of the three remaining semi-final slots, now that Australia have all but inked in their attendance. Having already seen off England in their Group C encounter, and with Bangladesh and Ireland still to come, the chance to kick a fellow senior Test nation while they are down will do wonders for their prospects. (New Zealand did, of course, slip up against Bangladesh in the warm-ups, but they'll not be taking their next meeting so lightly).
"Of course it's a disadvantage in playing one-day cricket on a Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday," said West Indies captain, Brian Lara, in the aftermath of Australia's 103-run victory. "That's really tough. The only saving grace is that our bowlers didn't have to do anything today, only run around a bit with a bat in their hands. It was a possibility we knew about, with two games in three days and a rain-day in between, but that's not going to be an excuse tomorrow. We have our focus and the guys are looking forward to the game.
"New Zealand is a very good one-day outfit," added Lara. "We're not going to take them any lighter than Australia. They are coming off the back of not just the first round but their performances against Australia in New Zealand, so they are very high in confidence and we know it's going to be a tough job tomorrow. But we're confident we can get our act together."
New Zealand get landed with the "dark horses" label so often it has gone beyond parody. But the fact remains that they have gone about their business with a stealthful professionalism ever since their early exit from the CB Series. They have won six matches in a row since February, in spite of an injury crisis that would have derailed lesser sides.
Craig McMillan has been struggling with a toe injury, Ross Taylor's hamstring strain is going to rule him out of tomorrow's match, Mark Gillespie's shoulder is recovering from a peculiar case of paralysis, while Daryl Tuffey's shoulder has failed to recover and instead has caused him to be sent home.
And then, upon arrival in Antigua, came quite ought to have been the final straw - when Shane Bond broke the wrist of his own opening batsman, Lou Vincent, who has since been replaced in the squad by Hamish Marshall. "Vincent will be a major factor," said Lara. "He was outstanding in the field in the first round, and when they bat he bats in the way that gives themselves an opportunity."
However Stephen Fleming, New Zealand's captain, managed to remain indifferent to his side's plague of setbacks. "It's been a dramatic week with Lou going and 'Rossco' working hard on getting back," he admitted. "It has changed the balance of the side. But the core is still there and the bonus has been we've had six days to adjust - it hasn't been thrown on us the day before a game so we've been able to prepare mentally for it."
In Vincent's absence, the opening berth passes to Peter Fulton, who is hardly a man in the Matthew Hayden mould, but who nevertheless thumped 76 not out from just 65 balls in the victory over Australia at Auckland last month. "Pete's form is outstanding," said Fleming. "To leave him out of the first couple of games was incredibly difficult. The positive for him now is he gets a chance, and a consistent chance to bat in one spot for a while."
There is, however, one key reason why New Zealand have no fear of the coming encounter - and to spot that you need to look no further than the cause of Vincent's injury. Bond's searing spell of 2 for 19 was instrumental in the victory over England, and in the absence of Brett Lee and Shoaib Akhtar, only Sri Lanka's Lasith Malinga and Australia's Shaun Tait can match Bond for pure speed. Malinga's astounding performance in Guyana notwithstanding, Bond is the man who has the World Cup experience to fall back on.
West Indies may not be best pleased to face a third consecutive day of competition, but they do at least now know what to expect of an Antigua wicket that Lara this afternoon claimed was a belter. That may be overstating the case somewhat, but after the best part of a week away from competition, New Zealand will be the ones feeling their way in the early stages at a new venue.
"Now that we've played on it we realise how easy it is to bat on," said Lara. "Maybe New Zealand, coming from St Lucia, will take some time to grow accustomed to it. But we'll just put our feet up for the next 18 hours or so to ensure we get the necessary rest. One game or one disappointment is not going to change anything. I've still got confidence in the job that's required."
West Indies (probable) 1 Chris Gayle, 2 Shivnarine Chanderpaul, 3 Ramnaresh Sarwan, 4 Marlon Samuels, 5 Brian Lara (capt), 6 Dwayne Bravo, 7 Dwayne Smith, 8 Denesh Ramdin (wk), 9 Daren Powell, 10 Corey Collymore, 11 Jerome Taylor.
New Zealand (probable) 1 Peter Fulton, 2 Stephen Fleming (capt), 3 Hamish Marshall, 4 Scott Styris, 5 Craig McMillan, 6 Jacob Oram, 7 Brendon McCullum (wk), 8 Daniel Vettori, 9 James Franklin, 10 Michael Mason, 11 Shane Bond.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo