Cricket: West Indies' pride restored

Tony Cozier discovers a resurgence of interest among Caribbean youth after a gripping series with Australia
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The Independent Online
THEY WERE unable to regain the Frank Worrell Trophy that has been their Holy Grail since surrendering it after 17 years in 1995, but the West Indies regained much more in their shared Test series against Australia that ended here on Wednesday.

By holding opponents with a record to support their claims as the strongest team in contemporary Test cricket, West Indies restored their pride, self- esteem and reputation. All had been shattered by their humiliating 5-0 drubbing in the preceding series in South Africa and their crushing defeat in the first Test in Port of Spain, where their indignity was accentuated by their second innings all-out score of 51, their lowest total in 71 years of Test cricket.

The comment from the Australian captain, Steve Waugh, as he received the trophy amid a sea of travelling Australian supporters at the Recreation Ground after his team's series-levelling victory in the fourth Test was confirmation of the West Indies renewed status. "It means as much to us as holding the Ashes urn," he said.

There was relief in Waugh's voice. This was his first assignment as captain since succeeding the highly successful and much-admired Mark Taylor in January and he had come within three hours of losing it to opposition cast aside as no-hopers even by their own public a few weeks earlier.

Waugh had confirmed his standing as the game's most reliable and consistent batsman throughout but his unimaginative tactics were repeatedly questioned. The omission of the champion leg-spinner Shane Warne, Australia's most identifiable cricketer, created an understandably negative reaction back home and Waugh had to take ultimate responsibility for the decision. To have returned with Warne's future in doubt and without the trophy as well would have been disastrous.

There are still suspicions among those in high places over whether Waugh is the best man for the job, just as there almost universally were over his West Indian counterpart, Brian Lara, at the start of the series. A batsman with the unmistakable touch of genius and one who regarded the captaincy as his inevitable destiny, Lara had so lost his way that he had not scored a 100 for 14 Tests by Port of Spain.

His own board reflected general wrath over events in South Africa, bluntly telling him "to make significant improvements in his leadership skills" and placing him on probation for two Tests. His response was immediate and inspirational, and it proved the catalyst for the astonishing revival that followed. Lara's 213 in the second Test lifted the pall of gloom that had hung over him and his players for so long and was the foundation of a victory by 10 wickets.

His masterpiece, an unbeaten 153 in the unforgettable third Test, not only single-handedly carried the West Indies home by one wicket but instantly rendered as irrelevant the pervasive televised American basketball that has so seduced the youth of the Caribbean.

Lara has been the focal point of West Indies cricket since his world record 375 against England five years ago. His decline and his volatile temperament that drew him into one well-publicised controversy after another were principle among the reasons for the turbulent times that culminated in the shambles in South Africa.

Now even his sternest critics, like Michael Holding, the great fast bowler of an earlier era and now television pundit, have acknowledged a metamorphosis. "He has matured almost overnight," Holding said. "Perhaps what happened in South Africa shook him into the realisation of what it means to be West Indies captain. Throughout this series he has led from the front, not only with the bat but in his interaction with his players on and off the field."

For both teams, the series exposed weaknesses. The West Indies' were well known since they continued to depend too heavily on too few individuals. Lara was their only batsman to average over 30 and the ever-green fast bowling pair of Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh, both in their mid- 30s, shared 45 wickets. Not one new West Indian made an impression, a continuing worry for the future.

Australia's cracks were more sudden and surprising. Warne, rushed back too quickly after his shoulder operation, managed only two wickets in his three Tests before he was dropped. Two other essential members of the team, the wicketkeeper Ian Healy and the quality batsman Mark Waugh, had poor returns. Healy, at 34, showed unmistakable signs of the wear and tear of more than a decade of international cricket.