Cricket: West Indies welcome wet weather

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RAIN CLOUDS hovered ominously over Port-of-Spain most of yesterday and left the outfield at the Queen's Park Oval soggy enough under foot to threaten the start of the West Indies' first Test against Australia here today.

The downpours, more of which are forecast over the next three days, were welcomed by cynical, if not entirely unrealistic, fans here who regard the weather as the only hope of the West Indies escaping from the match with a draw. Talk of victory around these parts is taken with the same scepticism as politicians' promise of full employment.

It is a pessimism prompted by the trauma of the West Indies' calamitous visit to South Africa and the chaotic aftermath.

The tour ended less than a month ago in a 5-0 whitewash in the Test series and 6-1 in the one-day internationals and has been followed by humiliating public criticism by the West Indies Cricket Board president, Pat Rousseau, of the "weakness in leadership" of captain Brian Lara, manager Clive Lloyd and coach Malcolm Marshall.

At the same press conference, though, Rousseau announced that all would be retained but Lara would on probation for two Tests to straighten himself out. It has done little to improve the Board's image in the dressing room.

In the interim, the middle-order batting was decimated by the unavailability of Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Carl Hooper. Chanderpaul is covering from torn ligaments in his right shoulder and will not be ready until the second Test next week, Hooper is with his seriously-ill infant son and his Australian wife in Adelaide.

Lara has only just got the all-clear on a chipped bone just above his right wrist, a painful legacy of South Africa, while the veteran fast bowlers Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh, for so long the spearheads of the attack, have been resting ageing hamstring muscles pulled in South Africa in readiness for what is likely to be their final campaign. None has played a first-class match for six weeks.

The situation was so confused that the selectors chose a squad of 15 to cover all eventualities, five of them new to Test cricket. They recalled Jimmy Adams and Roland Holder for their first Test in a year to fill the middle-order vacancies.

Fresh from their Ashes triumph, the Australians' only concern, in Steve Waugh's debut Test as Mark Taylor's successor as captain, is whether to use Shane Warne or Stuart MacGill as their leg-spinner should the pitch remain as grassy today as it was yesterday. It is a puzzle that underlines their immense strength at present.

WEST INDIES: B C Lara (capt), S L Campbell, S Ragoonath, R I C Holder, D R E Joseph, J C Adams, R D Jacobs (wkt), C E L Ambrose, M Dillon, P D Collins, C A Walsh.

AUSTRALIA (from): S R Waugh (capt), M J Slater, M T G Elliott, J L Langer, M E Waugh, G S Blewett, R T Ponting, I A Healy (wkt), S K Warne, A C Dale, S C G MacGill, J N Gillespie, G D McGrath.

Umpires: E A Nicholls (WI) and P Willey (Eng).