West Indies v Australia, 3rd Test, Barbados June 11, 2008

Tight Caribbean tussle ends too soon


Fidel Edwards will be a key man for West Indies but the make-up of the rest of their attack is still uncertain © DigicelCricket.com/Brooks La Touche Photography
 

A three-Test duel that seemed too long when it started now enters a conclusion that has come too quickly. The owner of the Frank Worrell Trophy was decided in ten days, but while Australia have controlled much of the play, the contest, which resumes in Barbados on Thursday, has been far from one-sided.

Ricky Ponting rarely admits a weakness, but at the end of the second game he said his bowlers have come back to the pack. After running into a batting order that uses Shivnarive Chanderpaul as a crutch and has had wonky episodes in every innings, Ponting's admission gave the rest of the world further hope the world champions are ripe for overhauling.

West Indies' main problem as they attempt to come from behind and level their second series in a row is the big prize is already back in Australia's hands. The emotional pull for success has been reduced and the best the hosts can achieve is 1-1. That result was a strong one against Sri Lanka when there were only two matches to fight over.

Abbreviated series make it difficult for the followers to feel satisfied, especially if there are regular shifts in momentum. West Indies could have won the first Test until they were undone by Stuart Clark on the final day, and in the second fixture they never quite got ahead but refused to die. This tussle between two evolving teams could hold interest (for traditional fans, anyway) over five Tests, although one of the off-shoots of Australia's modern desire for dominance has been the reduction in full schedules. The long, winding walks of the past have been replaced by quick trips to the gym, except when England is involved.

A year ago West Indies might have secretly wished for a short series against Australia to avoid the embarrassment of a fourth consecutive lopsided campaign. Now there are futile dreams of a longer contest. Imagine Chris Gayle being available for the next three Tests instead of one. Opening has been a problem for the home side and local supporters must wonder what might have been if Gayle's groin was healthy for the opening two games.

Gayle was in charge when West Indies won the second Test against Sri Lanka in April and his short leadership reign includes two victories and a couple of losses. He has been training strongly and will return to take the spot vacated by the out-of-sorts Devon Smith.

The local selectors have a major decision over the combination of the bowling attack, which faltered in the second Test when Australia's batting improved. No spinner was chosen on an unfriendly surface for the fast men, but there are much greater expectations for the Kensington Oval pitch. Ponting said the practice wickets in Barbados were "twice as fast and bouncy as anything we have experienced so far on tour". "If the Test pitch is anything like that," he said in his column in the Australian, "we could see some really exciting cricket."

 
 
Where West Indies won't be comfortable is with Brett Lee. He was exhausted after back-to-back Tests, but the Australians had a few days off and Lee will be ready to charge
 

Fidel Edwards and his gang upset the Australians in Jamaica and it will be fascinating to see how both sets of speedsters go if the surface fulfills the predictions. "It is going to be the best pitch we're going to be playing on this series," Gayle said. "There is going to be a bit more bounce and pace in it, it's going to be very good for batting even though it will have a bit more pace and assist the bowlers a bit more."

Australia have avoided the lure of picking four fast men, meaning Ashley Noffke and Doug Bollinger remain on the sidelines, and named Beau Casson, the left-arm wrist-spinner, for his debut. The decision is a sensible one from Australia, who need to experiment before the India series in October, but the selection of a novice gives the home team another reason to feel calm.

Where they won't be comfortable is with Brett Lee. He was exhausted after back-to-back Tests, but the Australians had a few days off and Lee will be ready to charge. On two flat pitches he has already picked up 13 wickets at 19.53, and if there is spring in this one he will be an awkward prospect. He might even find a way to remove the virtually indestructible Chanderpaul, who has scored 313 runs, including two centuries, and was not dismissed in Antigua.

The tourists will also hope Mitchell Johnson can be convinced to show something approaching his best after a subdued start to his first overseas tour. Ponting's other concern is the right ring finger of Brad Haddin. It broke during the opening Test but Haddin, being true to the traditions of Australian wicketkeeping, ignored the pain in the next game. Despite - or maybe because of - the appearance of Luke Ronchi as a shadow player, Haddin will continue to shut out the discomfort as he tries to secure the gloves following Adam Gilchrist's departure.

Australia's armour has become more brittle over the past year while West Indies appear to be on the rise. It is a shame there are only five more days before a surprisingly gripping series concludes.

Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo

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