As usually happens when Australia tour the Caribbean, the Test series contained cussedness, controversy, a clattering of records and some cracking cricket. All, however, were squeezed into the final Test in Antigua, and the other three were as predictable, flat and lifeless as the shamefully benign pitches on which they were played. The quick, bouncy tracks which once characterised West Indian cricket have gone the way of the phalanx of fearsome fast bowlers who so ruthlessly exploited them.
As the Australian captain, Steve Waugh, adroitly noted, ground authorities in the region had to take heed of the connection. Until they produced pitches that encouraged pace bowlers and challenged batsmen, the stagnation of the game in the West Indies would continue. Waugh, whose unquenchable thirst for success stemmed from those enervating days in the Caribbean 12 years earlier, when he and his team-mates were battered into submission by a relentless pace barrage, refused to let his own goals deflect his commitment to strengthening cricket around the world. "I have played 159 Tests," he said after being confronted by yet another inert strip of earth for the Third Test, in Barbados, "and this is the slowest, lowest wicket I have ever played on. All the wickets have been really slow and it's a major problem for cricket in the Caribbean. They're not going to produce any quick bowlers if they keep putting pitches out like that. There's no encouragement for them; it's too much hard work."
West Indies' ambitions were never high for this series, and they seemed convinced the best hope was to play on bare pitches and hang on for a handful of honourable draws. Blunting the rampant Australian pace attack - which during his 12-month ban had to cope without the support of Shane Warne's leg-spin - seemed to be the summit of their aspirations. It was no accident that the best-fought game of a lopsided series came at Antigua on a genuine cricket wicket. No accident, either, that its preparation was overseen by the former fast bowler, Andy Roberts. The match offered real cause for optimism, especially given the phenomenal outcome: West Indies won by mounting the highest successful run-chase in Test history. It is imperative that Caribbean groundsmen build on this and back their own players, rather than try to stymie the opposition. But stymieing the opposition was effectively confirmed as policy by Brian Lara, reinstated as captain three years after resigning amid much acrimony. Not that his return to the post was much less traumatic. Even allowing for the poisonous political undercurrents that permeate Caribbean cricket, West Indies' lead-up to the Test series was farcical. When Lara was asked to take over from Carl Hooper in the wake of their poor World Cup campaign, Hooper waited until three days before the First Test to declare he was unavailable. Around the same time, the West Indies Cricket Board proudly trumpeted that Bennett King, head of the Australian cricket academy, was their new national coach. Unfortunately, they told the press before contractual negotiations had been completed, and - though King denied his decision had been influenced by a glimpse of the workings of the WICB - he announced he was no longer interested. On top of these embarrassments, the outstanding young opener, Chris Gayle, was omitted from the First Test team after he preferred a lucrative doublewicket tournament in St Lucia to turning out for Jamaica in the final of the Carib Beer Challenge, the region's first-class competition. In what looked for all the world to be disciplinary action, he missed the first two Tests, though the selection panel, headed by Sir Vivian Richards, muddied the waters by stating that Gayle had been considered, but simply wasn't picked. It all added up to the kind of backstage buffoonery that might have unsettled a team heading into a series against lowly Bangladesh. Against the ultra-professional world champions, it was suicide. By lunch on the opening day of the First Test West Indies, having opted to bat, were battling for survival at 89 for five. They went on battling, gamely but with limited success, throughout that Test, again in Trinidad and on to Barbados, where not even the most benign of pitches could prevent them losing 20 wickets and slipping to a third heavy defeat. Indeed the docile pitches, instead of diminishing Australia's attack, encouraged Waugh to implement a plan he and the Australian selectors had been hatching for some time: to employ a five-man specialist bowling lineup and play Adam Gilchrist as a front-line batsman at No. 6, rather than No. 7. The decision was made easier by the absence of Damien Martyn, a regular in the top order, who had fractured his right index finger during the World Cup. The plan proved a resounding success. In each of the first three batsman-friendly Tests, the Australians - minus Glenn McGrath for the first two because his wife was ill - dismissed West Indies twice to take an unassailable 3-0 lead. The bland surfaces also allowed Australia's slightly shortened batting to score freely. Gilchrist, whose career average topped 59 at the end of the Tests, repaid the faith placed in him, but so did all the top six, and they averaged between 58 and 130 for the series. Ricky Ponting's form was especially remarkable: he had amassed 523 from five innings - including three centuries - before a virus prevented him from wreaking further havoc in Antigua. (The series' top-scorer, Lara, managed ten runs more against stiffer bowling, though from another three innings.) Australia's modus operandi in retaining the Frank Worrell Trophy, which they had held since 1994-95, was as familiar as it was punishing. During the first three Tests, they averaged 550-plus in their first innings at a rate of more than four an over, giving their bowlers enough time and ammunition to knock over a West Indian batting line-up containing more talent than application. A major beneficiary of the Australians' approach was Stuart MacGill, who proved himself the perfect understudy to Warne: the 20 wickets he prised out with his leg-spin were the most by a bowler on either side. In the end, the epic Fourth Test, which so nearly brought about Australia's first Caribbean whitewash, was decided perhaps as much by the fatigue of the Australian bowlers - enforcing the follow-on at Barbados subjected them to 244 overs off the reel - and by the absence of Ponting as by the courageous and mature batting from Lara's young players. Boosted by the arrival of fresh reinforcements, Ponting led his World Cupwinning side to four straight victories in the one-day games, taking Australia's record to an astounding 21 consecutive wins. Either a lack of appetite on their part or the brilliance of Wavell Hinds - perhaps both - then let West Indies claw back three consolation victories at the end of a seemingly interminable series. For Ponting, Gilchrist and the others who played in both Test and one-day sides, it signalled some long-overdue rest at home before the arrival of Bangladesh in July.
Match reports for
University of West Indies Vice Chancellor's XI v Australians at Cave Hill, Apr 26-28, 2003