World champions look to avoid underdogs' bite
Thirteen years ago an Australian adventure in the Caribbean rivalled in prestige a trip to England for the Ashes. The West Indies was also a top destination for supporters desperate to see what had made the region's players so great for so long. Since Steve Waugh's 200 at Sabina Park captured the Frank Worrell Trophy in 1995, the collection of countries has lost its cricket lustre to the point where the opening Test is no longer a major event. Not even for the players.
Ramnaresh Sarwan, Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Dwayne Bravo may fulfil the trait of struggling sides and literally be asleep in the field over the next week. Sarwan and Chanderpaul arrived in the West Indies a few days ago from the Indian Premier League; Bravo touched down on Tuesday in a private plane, about 48 hours before the toss. The squad camp to prepare for the series had already concluded before the big names decided to arrive with their jetlag.
They flew from the star-filled Twenty20 stadiums into a contest that cannot match the hype, payments or short peaks of excitement they experienced over the past month. Tests offer tradition, style and stature. Whether those values remain attractive will be gauged during the three-match series and beyond.
The Australians swear wearing whites under the shadow of a baggy green cap will always remain the pinnacle. Every player in the squad attended their camp in Brisbane at the start of May, but this week it has been revealed Matthew Hayden has been carrying an achilles injury that developed while he trained during the IPL. Yet the only games he missed were the warm-up against a Jamaica XI and the first Test.
When Hayden last withdrew, in Perth in January, Australia's 16-match winning streak ended. Without him the batting loses strength, a problem which is compounded by the absence of Michael Clarke, another regular, who arrives on Friday from compassionate leave. At the camp the team expected a rebuild through the middle, where Brad Haddin steps into the unenviable job of replacing Adam Gilchrist, but they have had to complete some serious reconstruction. Simon Katich has been pushed up to open and Brad Hodge will enter at No. 5. They are changes that give the home team hope.
It might be the beginning of a new age for Test cricket, but there is little doubt over the place of West Indies. A distant eighth in the world rankings, they remain the underachieving underdogs. After the 1995 series, when the Frank Worrell Trophy and the unofficial No. 1 ranking were taken away, they have won five of 21 Tests against teams led by Mark Taylor, Steve Waugh, Adam Gilchrist and Ricky Ponting. Only one victory has come in the past three series. There have been no draws.
In the past they had Brian Lara to provide the occasional match-turning miracle, or at least make defeat more acceptable. He signed off with 226 on the previous Australia tour and for the first Test they don't have Chris Gayle, the captain missing with a groin injury, or the suspended Marlon Samuels.
The visitors' batting newcomers are matched by those in the home set-up. Brenton Parchment, Ryan Hinds and Runako Morton have come in after West Indies won the final match against Sri Lanka to record a drawn series. Tim Nielsen, the Australia coach, has already spoken of the unknowns in the home team, and their support to the more established men, such as the IPL representatives, could be the difference between an even or one-sided contest.
The fast bowling in both outfits is more settled and Australia will be looking for Stuart MacGill to out-perform the opposition's spinner - Amit Jaggernauth and Sulieman Benn are in the squad; one or none of them could play in Jamaica. MacGill is back after regaining fitness and form since the Australian summer and should enjoy encountering a team with traditional frailties against legspin.
Australia showed some weaknesses in the series against India, losing and drawing the final two Tests of the four-game contest, and a couple of personnel adjustments leave them with points to prove. However, even though West Indies are at home, the world champions should not have many troubles disposing of them. Especially if the hangover from the IPL makes their three key players slow starters.
Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo