West Indies v Australia, 1st Test, Jamaica May 22, 2008

Tall order for underachievers


The groin injury that rules out Chris Gayle is an even more serious blow to West Indies than Matthew Hayden's is to Australia © DigicelCricket.com
 

These are early days in a new era for both teams in the Test series that starts at Sabina Park. By the end of the third Test at Kensington Oval in just over a month's time, Australia should know whether their reign over international cricket that has lasted since they came to the Caribbean in 1995 to end the West Indies' equally long supremacy is under any threat. And West Indies should be nearer to detecting whether the end is in sight to their prolonged riches to rags story.

It is just over a year since two of Australia's greatest bowlers, Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne, went into retirement, as did their tenacious opener, Justin Langer. It is only a few months since their intimating wicketkeeper-batsman Adam Gilchrist decided to join McGrath and Warne in the lucrative pension scheme that is the Indian Premier League.

As both Australia and West Indies are aware, such sudden losses can be stunning setbacks to any team.

Australia took a decade to overcome the simultaneous retirements of Greg Chappell, Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh in 1983. West Indies are still reeling from the exit of Viv Richards, Gordon Greenidge, Jeffrey Dujon and Malcolm Marshall, all at the same time, in 1991.

Australia's strength will be further tested in this match by the Achilles-heel injury that is likely to eliminate Matthew Hayden, their destructive left-hand opener with 30 hundreds and an average of 53.5 from his 94 Tests, and the family bereavement that delayed the arrival of Michael Clarke, their classy middle-order batsman and leader of the future.

With their professionalism and their pride and the financial resources that underpins a formidable structure, Australia is better placed than any other country to overcome such reversals. Yet cricketers of the quality of McGrath, Warne and Gilchrist are not easily replaced.

Michael Hussey, Stuart Clark, Andrew Symonds and others relatively new to Test cricket have quickly shown how well prepared they were when chosen but a close, highly competitive series against India earlier this year - and at home at that - indicated a loosening of Australia's grip.

The comparative figures are so foreboding their present strength appears unlikely to be tested in this series. Australia have triumphed in 38 series against five defeats since their overthrow of West Indies 18 years ago. Their individual win-loss record in that time is 98-25.

West Indies have not only given up the crown but slid towards the demeaning status of humble servant, eighth of ten among their peers. Yet there have been a few encouraging signs of late.

They have won two of their last five Tests. The first, over South Africa at Port Elizabeth last December, was their first away from home in more than seven years over a team ranked higher in the scheme of things. The second, over Sri Lanka at the Queen's Park Oval six weeks ago, followed defeat in the first Test that might otherwise have crushed their confidence.

 
 
Only Chanderpaul and Sarwan of the eleven average 40 and over with the bat. Only the ever improving Jerome Taylor of the bowlers has taken his Test wickets at under 40 each. The challenge is there for the rest. The selectors must be prepared to turn to others if they don't measure up
 

In each case, a bowling attack that appeared incapable of claiming 20 wickets a match - Australia have totaled over 400 in seven of their last eight first innings against it - twice dismissed strong opposition for under 300. Now they enter a series against Australia for the first time since 1993 without the brilliance of Brian Lara and, as it turns out, without captain Chris Gayle as well.

The groin injury that rules out Gayle is an even more serious blow to West Indies than Hayden's is to Australia. Apart from the experience of 72 Tests and his potential to destroy the fastest bowling, Gayle, by whatever mystical method, has shown himself to be a captain who gets the best out of his team. It is in that capacity that his absence will be more acutely felt.

However much his record is average, Marlon Samuels' two-year suspension for his careless association with an Indian gambler removes a middle-order batsman of genuine class and hints at an overdue maturity. Sewnarine Chattergoon's shoulder injury that makes him miss his second Test in three, a worrying sign, means another, untried opening pair.

As stand-in captain Ramnaresh Sarwan and coach John Dyson have pointed out, there are now opportunities for several players to address their previous underachievement. That covers just about everyone except Chanderpaul. It is a tall order, especially against such imposing opposition.

Only Chanderpaul and Sarwan of the eleven average 40 and over with the bat. Only the ever improving Jerome Taylor of the bowlers has taken his Test wickets at under 40 each. The challenge is there for the rest. The selectors must be prepared to turn to others if they don't measure up.