Any series for the Frank Worrell Trophy is something to savour, but in advance it was impossible to foresee quite how fascinating this one would be. In the months preceding the series, West Indies had been humiliated 5-0 in South Africa, while Australia could have defeated England 5-0 but for a tropical storm in Brisbane and arrogant complacency in Melbourne. Rather than a contest for a prize many Australians now treasure as much as the Ashes, this seemed a mismatch with potentially serious consequences for the game. But these series have developed such importance and proud traditions over three decades that both teams played with an intensity which exhausted all who competed and observed.
A squared rubber was a fitting result, although Australia's new captain, Steve Waugh, felt that a tie would have been the most appropriate outcome in Barbados, and that would have given Australia the series. Other, less biased, analysts wondered aloud whether that Test, which West Indies won by one wicket, was the greatest ever played. Certainly, West Indian captain Brian Lara's single-handed orchestration of the match instantly became part of the rich lore of the game. Lara's extraordinary metamorphosis, as a man and leader, breathed new life into the series and, indeed, West Indies cricket. While the seriousness of the problems confronting the game throughout the Caribbean at the end of the 20th century could not be underestimated, Lara showed that, where there is life, there is hope.
Yet after the First Test, when his team were dismissed for 51, their lowest-ever score, there seemed no hope at all. For the first time since the mid-1970s, West Indies were in awe of the Australians, and the public was confused, angry and disillusioned. Indeed, the welfare of the game was on the agenda when the leaders of the Caribbean community met at Paramaribo in Suriname at the time of the First Test, Keith Mitchell, prime minister of Grenada, declared: "We recognised that cricket is not just a sport, it is about the economic life of the region. You have seen the psychological damage to all of us with the state of our cricket. It has hurt our pride, the embarrassment in South Africa." The embarrassment was worse after the humiliation at Trinidad, and Lara, officially on probation for the first two Tests, reached Jamaica as perhaps the most unpopular West Indies captain of all time. But within days he was again fêted as a hero. Such is the fickleness of the game.
It was a shocking decision... Being captain of West Indies is a huge honour and a huge job. It needs a big man to do it, someone well-rounded as an individual. Brian Lara is not. He is a spoilt child.
Michael Holding on Lara's reappointment as captain, quoted in the Mail on Sunday.
Anything can happen, it has been said, in Trinidad. Frogs whistle, birds speak French and oysters grow on trees, but no one expected to see the West Indies of Sobers and the three Ws, Richards and, yes, even Lara capitulate as pathetically as they did here.
Pat Gibson, The Times, on the Trinidad Test.
Cricket is my life and I want to see West Indies back to the top. I don't want to spend the rest of my career like this.
Brian Lara after the 51 all out.
Once we could beat the world, man. Now it's time to suck salt.
Trinidadian spectator quoted in the Daily telegraph.
West Indies cricket is so close to expiring that you cannot take its pulse by hand. Devising strategies and game plans at this stage is like prescribing cough mixture for a death rattle. All we have left is faith healing. And if anyone can work the miracle that so many West Indians still seem to expect surely it must be Lara, our lad of Fatima College.
B. C. Pires, The Independent, Port-of-Spain.
The series was almost exclusively contested by five of the most distinguished cricketers of all time - Lara, Steve Waugh and the fast bowlers Courtney Walsh, Curtly Ambrose and Glenn McGrath. Such was their dominance that even the more notable ancillary performances were obscured. In essence, both teams were too dependent on too few - especially the Australians, whose reliance on Steve Waugh and McGrath was all the stronger as another of their greats, Shane Warne, failed to rediscover his best form, while Ian Healy and the upper-order batsmen were inconsistent. Warne was omitted for the final Test at St John's and stunned the cricket fraternity by talking of retirement.
Despite their pre-eminence in the Test pecking order, the Australians were exposed by a team supposedly bankrupt of resources, inspiration and direction. Lara transformed the series through the psychological domination of the Australians, much as Sachin Tendulkar did in India 12 months earlier. His presence at the crease was so overpowering it preyed on the minds of the visitors long after he completed a wonderful double-century at Kingston. Indeed, had Lara garnered more support among his fellow batsmen, West Indies might have won the series. However, with Shivnarine Chanderpaul missing throughout because of a shoulder injury, and Carl Hooper unavailable for family reasons until the last two Tests, he was usually left to battle alone. Lara amassed 546 runs at 91.00, with Sherwin Campbell (197 at 28.14) the next-best West Indian. The statistics are as damning as they are revealing. Conversely, Australia did have four players who averaged better than 30, Steve Waugh dominating the list with 409 runs at 58.42.
Lara's transformation was amazingly dramatic. He had been humbled by a succession of abject failures and was now forced to confront his demons. While he made obscure references to ethereal powers, giving thanks to the big man upstairs, others thought earthly figures, in the shape of team manager Clive Lloyd and performance consultant Dr Rudi Webster, might have played the more persuasive role. "I've improved as a person, not just in cricket, but in living my day-to-day life," Lara told the press after the Second Test. "You've got to learn from the experiences you have. As you get older, you get wiser." In some quarters, this was interpreted as a sign that Lara had made the transition from angry and undisciplined young man to solid citizen and thoughtful leader. While they were deeply grateful, not everyone in West Indian cricket was convinced of Lara's new maturity. In the short term, however, his success eased the gloom and put a stop to the undermining insularity which characterises cricket in the region when the West Indies team fails. Everywhere, there were colourful signs exhorting all and sundry to Rally round the West Indies, the title of the team's official anthem.
In its context, with due deliberation and with apologies to George Headley, Sir Garry Sobers and a host of other greats, I cannot identify a single innings by any West Indian batsman in our 71 years of Test cricket of such significance.
Tony Cozier, Barbados Sunday Sun, on Lara in Kingston.
At times recently, it was Lara who seemed the madman in a sober world. Carrying the weight of his region's disappointment, he partied until the early hours at a nightclub called The Asylum. On probation for lateness, he missed the team bus to training. Yet when the March fever attacked everyone else, Lara stood with the sharpest eye and the clearest head at the centre of the action.
Malcolm Knox, Sydney Morning Herald.
I had the best seat in the ground to watch his innings, and it's great when he bats like that.
Brian Lara's face, even at the moment of one of his greatest triumphs, looked drawn with pain, still haunted by humiliation.
Paul Weaver, The Guardian, on the post-match press conference.
Brian is a changed man and a better captain.
I'm a different person now, older and wiser.
There were still worries, not least about the bowling which continued to be dominated by Walsh and Ambrose, now in their mid-thirties. They took 45 wickets between them: Walsh passed the magical mark of 400 wickets in Tests and received the keys to his native city of Kingston. Two bowlers in their early twenties, Pedro Collins and Corey Collymore, made their debuts, but had yet to show they were ready to take over the pace attack's starring roles.
Steve Waugh admitted to a feeling of completeness after succeeding Mark Taylor as captain. By winning all four tosses, he suggested he had inherited his predecessor's luck. This took Australia's successful sequence to 11 in a row, dating back to the Pakistan tour: the odds against that are 2,047 to 1. With leadership, however, came a level of scrutiny he found unsettling. He was demonstrably in charge, but often conferred with both his deputy, Warne, and the sage keeper Healy. Much like his mentor, Allan Border, he demonstrated a fierce loyalty to his men, which made his decision to discard Warne in Antigua especially painful. Playing two leg-spinners - Warne and Stuart MacGill - as a matter of course in the first three Tests virtually compelled him to bat first, which at times placed an added strain on the erratic top order and deprived McGrath of the chance to exploit helpful conditions.
Even so, McGrath provided a string of command performances for a remarkable aggregate of 30 wickets - the most ever taken in a series in the West Indies by a visiting bowler - at 16.93. At any other time, McGrath would have been Man of the Series, but on this occasion he had to defer to Lara.
While the series was not without controversy, generally it was played in a good spirit and there was greater fraternisation between the dressing-rooms than in the early and mid-1990s. Players of both teams were concerned at the lack of security afforded them - at Sabina Park, for his own safety, Lara had to run to the pavilion when he reached his double-century. Crowd trouble provided more headlines during the one-day internationals. A pitch invasion ended the fifth game, in Georgetown, which referee Raman Subba Row diplomatically declared a tie and, in Bridgetown, the final match was halted for 45 minutes after a controversial run-out, which was subsequently rescinded. The one-day series swung from one side to the other, but was finally drawn 3-3; as in the Test series, neither team could preserve an advantage. Steve Waugh was outspoken about the problems in the last Bridgetown game, prompting the Barbados police commissioner to take out a writ for libel against him as the two squads departed to England for the World Cup.
S. R. Waugh (New South Wales) (captain), S. K. Warne (Victoria) (vice-captain), A. J. Bichel (Queensland), G. S. Blewett (South Australia), A. C. Dale (Queensland), M. T. G. Elliott (Victoria), J. N. Gillespie (South Australia), I. A. Healy (Queensland), J. L. Langer (Western Australia), S. C. G. MacGill (New South Wales), G. D. McGrath (New South Wales), C. R. Miller (Tasmania), R. T. Ponting (Tasmania), M. J. Slater (New South Wales), M. E. Waugh (New South Wales).
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