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February 4, 2009
England left the subcontinent shortly before Christmas, but it might be worth reminding a few of the batsmen of that fact, after they endured an unexpected trial by spin on the opening day at Sabina Park. The pitch itself could have been transplanted straight out of Bangalore or Chennai, which was the first marker of how the game in the Caribbean is now so different to what it once was.
Sulieman Benn entered the action in the 15th over of the day and eventually bowed out in the 79th. He and Chris Gayle bowled unchanged for 24 overs either side of lunch and tea, completing 51 between them for the day. In years gone by spin was an afterthought for West Indies captains, something used to rest the fast men or speed up the over-rate, this was an extraordinary deviation from the norm. The changing nature of the pitches, from quick and bouncy to low and crumbling, has necessitated a change of ideas.
However, while most who hark back to the glory days of West Indies recall the four quicks of the 80s, there was a generation before that where spin dominated in the form of Sonny Ramadin, Alf Valentine and, a little while later, Lance Gibbs. The 2009 versions will need more days like this to earn places among that exalted company, yet at times England played them as though faced with spitting cobras. They were crease-bound and virtually scoreless for long periods and the partnership between Kevin Pietersen and Paul Collingwood registering 23 runs in 17 overs - all against spin.
Benn was the one who really caught the eye, using his height and long fingers to good effect and extracting appreciable turn and bounce from the surface. The pitch isn't rapid, but Benn still managed to put enough on the ball to beat, and take, the outside edge on regular occasions. He has developed since making his debut against Sri Lanka, in Guyana, last year when he appeared to be more of a roller than a spinner. Now he puts more into his action at the crease, staying tall and giving it a rip.
"I'm hungry to take wickets, personally I'm proud of the spinners in the Caribbean," Benn said. "There are some decent spinners around, there has been some talk about the lack of quality of spinners in the Caribbean and I want to prove the [those] people wrong. I've been playing cricket pretty much all of 2008, done a lot of bowling and am getting better, hopefully."
Indeed he is getting better, especially with his subtle variations. The arm-ball caused plenty of problems, beating both Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff, and contributing to their lack of desire to get down the pitch. A boundary came off his third ball when he dropped short and was cut through point by Pietersen, but he didn't concede his second until Pietersen drove him through the covers in his 23rd over.
And Benn showed impressive nerve when Pietersen finally had a dip to race towards three figures. He was driven, swiped and swept before, next ball, firing it in fuller and Pietersen got a huge top-edge. A wicket to remember for Benn - "right up there" in his limited Test scalps, he said. "Obviously I was very satisfied with it, he had hit me for 14 in the previous three balls, so it was very satisfying," he added. "When he was in the eighties I could see that he wanted to get to his hundred pretty quickly, it was just a matter of staying patient and staying in the zone.
"As a spinner, you've got to bowl long spells, you can't get away from it, especially if the pitch is that slow," he said with weary satisfaction. "I've bowled some decent spells, but I reckon this is the best ever."
And the amount of spin didn't half help with the over-rate, too. At the end of the first hour West Indies had bowled 12, but by mid-afternoon they were ahead of the required target. The ICC will be pleased. However, it was also to West Indies' advantage that they kept the rate up as a stack of overs whizzed by and the score had barely moved.
While that is less of a concern in Tests than one-dayers it still plays on the mind of naturally attacking batsmen who feel they should be scoring upwards of three-an-over most of the time. England went from the 22nd to the 50th over without hitting a boundary before Flintoff pulled Daren Powell through midwicket when Gayle eventually recalled his pacemen. Such is the fragile nature of this West Indies side, that as soon as England started to play positively their demeanour became less confident.
That is why the removal of Pietersen was so crucial, if he had remained for the rest of the day he could have carried the momentum firmly away. Danger still lurks in the shape of Flintoff, who has played an impressively restrained innings, and the lower order, while some of the quick bowling in the final hour was wayward.
"I think we are ahead at the moment," Benn said. "Obviously we would have liked six or seven on first day but given the pitch, I think we bowled well and fielded well and we are pretty satisfied."
The key for West Indies is stringing together entire good days, not letting it slip after two good sessions. However, what they needed to do was back up talk of their improvement with a performance on the field. They have done that, in an unexpected way, now let's hope it wasn't a one-off.
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