West Indies v Australia, 2nd Test, Antigua May 29, 2008

Reshuffled teams ready to show true credentials


Ricky Ponting and Andrew Symonds will be part of Australia's middle order, which has been strengthened by the inclusion of the vice-captain Michael Clarke © AFP
 

The first Test in Jamaica uncovered more issues than it dealt with and it is unlikely many of them will be solved definitively during the second game in Antigua from Friday. Will West Indies be back as a mid-table force or will their batting inconsistencies prevent them from climbing above No. 8? At what point are Australia in their drop from untouchables to mortals, and when will the performances of the world champions level out?

Was the destruction caused by Fidel Edwards and Daren Powell in the second innings at Sabina Park something that can scare opposition teams regularly? Is Stuart MacGill the two-year answer to the tourists' spin bowling problems? Will Twenty20's Dwayne Bravo ever feel comfortable defending for more than a couple of overs? And what difference will the return of key players make?

Immediate answers are impossible, but the range of questions confirms the new levels of interest in the series. The relatively tight opening contest has given life to an affair that was expected to be one-sided. Matthew Hayden's absence for the rest of the series and the possibility of Chris Gayle and Jerome Taylor regaining fitness could bring the two teams' standards further together over the next two games.

Stuart Clark's fine second-innings bowling on Monday managed to cover up Australia's batting frailties, but the hope that Hayden would provide some cement at the top has gone. Simon Katich will sneak ahead of Brad Hodge, who is squeezed out despite comfortably out-performing Katich in pressure situations during the opening game. However, further twisting to an already unsettled order was considered unnecessary. Michael Clarke, who is back from compassionate leave, will re-enter at No. 5 and will be vice-captain for the first time in a Test.

"There's no doubt [Clarke] is jumping out of his skin," Ponting told AAP. "He did what he had to do back in Australia and it's been a tough time ... He really loves playing cricket for Australia and with a bit more responsibility now and a leadership role in the group he is blossoming every day."

Strength in Australia's middle order is important because the sight of the fallible opening pairing of Katich and Phil Jaques will provide a lift for Edwards, Powell and Taylor. The West Indies fast men looked like world beaters at Sabina Park and Australia will need to find better ways of coping during the inaugural Test at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium.

During the World Cup last year Australia played three games on the new arena, which still had a sandy outfield, and the conditions offer another unpredictable element to the Test. So far both sides have trained at the smaller, older Recreation Ground and the players will get their first look at the North Sound pitch the day before the game.

After their strong comeback on the final day in Jamaica, and with the rust shaken from their break between Test series, Australia's position is comfortable and a draw would retain them the Frank Worrell Trophy. It is hard to gauge whether West Indies are under pressure or happily playing above themselves. While there was disappointment at their final-day collapse, there was pleasure at home and overseas in the way they stood up to Australia for much of the contest.

 
 
John Dyson, the West Indies coach, said during the week his players realised at Sabina Park that the Australians were not superhuman. It is an important step for any side that wants to move from also-rans to contenders
 

People in the Caribbean are talking cricket again and the local players will be expected to continue their harassment of the world champions. If they can cope with the increased demands then there will be opportunities to create further holes in Australia's redeveloping outfit.

Gayle's entrance would provide some much needed stability, especially after Brenton Parchment's unconvincing contributions in Jamaica, and his leadership will also allow Ramnaresh Sarwan to concentrate solely on batting. The side desperately needs to support Shivnarine Chanderpaul and an uncluttered mind would be the best thing for Sarwan, who failed twice last week as the stand-in leader. A groin injury has meant Gayle has not been able to play since the Sri Lanka series, but the problem is improving and the side will be more formidable if Taylor overcomes a back complaint.

John Dyson, the West Indies coach, said during the week his players realised at Sabina Park that the Australians were not superhuman. It is an important step for any side that wants to move from also-rans to contenders, and the view worked for Australia in the 1990s when they were trying to steal the trophy.

In the other camp Tim Nielsen was so impressed by West Indies that he believed they were capable of improving to No. 3 or 4 in the rankings. The evolving Australia were surprised by the initial fight of West Indies and now realise that even if their batting clicks and their bowlers are on song, the series is not likely to be one where the world champions beat up on the easy beats. When they were last in Antigua a year ago that scenario would have been unthinkable.

Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo

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