CRICKET: Australia look for Warne to strike back

Australia start the battle for Test supremacy against the West Indies at the Kensington Oval today with the odds heavily stacked against them.

They have suffered such heavy losses in weaponry, men and morale in the initial skirmishes of the campaign over the past few weeks that they seem ill-prepared to take on the might of opponents who have not been beaten in a Test series at home since 1973 and nowhere since 1980.

They came with confident expectations, prompted by 14 wins in their previous 15 one-day internationals and their recent emphatic retention of the Ashes, but these have been quickly tempered by developments on the ground.

Craig McDermott, their most potent and reliable strike-force, and Damien Fleming, a promising back-up, have both been put out of commission even before a meaningful shot has been fired. Torn ligaments in McDermott's ankle and Fleming's shoulder has seen both return home.

Carl Rackemann has been summoned for McDermott but, aged 34 and with the last of his 12 Tests all of four years ago, it amounts to a Doodlebug replacing a Polaris missile. If the left-arm Brendon Julian is a fair swap for the inexperienced Fleming, there is simply no adequate replacement for McDermott.

He is a stalwart of 65 Tests and Australia's second highest wicket-taker, whose 31 wickets in the recent Ashes series emphasised his continuing quality. The fast bowling trio that remains - Julian, Paul Reiffel and Glenn McGrath - have a total of 58 between them.

McDermott's loss places even greater responsibility on Shane Warne, whose giant leg-breaks, fizzing flippers and other assorted dirty tricks have made him as crucial to Australia's strategy, and success, as McDermott's incisive pace.

In his three years of international cricket, Warne has bamboozled the best of batsmen and earned comparisons with the great leg-spinners of all time. Typically, the West Indies have sought to neutralise him and, so far, have done so with spectacular effect.

Led primarily by the adventurous stroke-play of Carl Hooper and Brian Lara, they belted him for four sixes and 18 fours in the four one-day internationals he played, limiting him to four wickets and scoring at 5.23 runs an over.

He was even more severely attacked by the West Indies' reserves, under the name of the President's XI, in a rain-spoiled match in St Lucia over the weekend. His 14 overs cost 84 as Keith Arthurton, the discarded Test left-hander, and two robust Antiguans, Dave Joseph and Ridley Jacobs, lifted him for six sixes in all.

The smallness of the grounds, such as that in St Lucia, is one of the realities of cricket in the Caribbean that Warne has yet to come to grips with. Most of the 10 sixes already clouted off him would have been deep catches in Melbourne or Perth.

While Australia have lost key elements in their armoury, the West Indies welcome back their captain Richie Richardson, for the first time since doctors ordered a six-month break from the game last July because he was suffering from acute fatigue. His return strengthens an already solid middle-order, featuring Lara, Hooper and Jimmy Adams, the unobtrusive left-hander whose current average of 86.4 makes him top of the batting list at present.

For all that, Lara remains the batsman opponents fear most and the Australians would have been heartened by his abandonment of practice on Wednesday afternoon to save a painful hip injury, sustained two weeks ago in the one-day internationals. However, a few hours later he was playing in a charity golf tournament in the company of Nigel Mansell, Robert Sangster, Sir Gary Sobers and other assorted celebrities, and no one doubts he will be fit and present in the team this morning.

WEST INDIES (First Test, Bridgetown, starting today): From: R B Richardson (capt), S C Williams, S L Campbell, B C Lara, J C Adams, C L Hooper, J R Murray (wkt), W K M Benjamin, C E L Ambrose, C A Walsh, K C G Benjamin, S Chanderpaul, R Dhanraj.

AUSTRALIA: From: M A Taylor (capt), M J Slater, D C Boon, M E Waugh, S R Waugh, G S Blewett, I A Healy (wkt), P R Reiffel, B J Julian, G D McGrath, T B A May.

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