Cricket World Cup: Caribbean revivalist

Ascension day for Jacobs as resurgent West Indies face surprisingly shaky Australians
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The Independent Online
IN THE old days, about six months ago, Ridley Jacobs would practise his socks off and mystify his friends. What, they wanted to know, was he about? For much of his life he had put himself through this particular mill and it had led nowhere. All that sweat and toil and Jacobs had failed to climb the ladder.

The biblical reference might be appropriate. "I told them that I had faith, that my belief in God and Christ would see me through if it was meant," he said. "I never doubted that one day it would happen, that if I kept working hard my time in the West Indies team would come."

It has arrived all right. Jacobs made his Test debut against South Africa last 26 November ("on my birthday so I felt particularly blessed"), made an immediate transition to being an international and has become a cornerstone of the team. He may not be the first, second or even third name on the team sheet given the presence of Lara, Ambrose and Walsh but his inclusion now merits no discussion.

Ridley Jacobs, at 31, is the new Jeff Dujon. If he possesses neither the batting flamboyance nor the wicketkeeping elan of the spectacular Jamaican he is the first in a long line of successors to be both dependable and stylish. The measure of his progress is that he seems to have been around for years.

Jacobs was a notable and rare success in the lamentable Test rubber against South Africa, he maintained his momentum in the equally abject one-day series which followed and in the see-saw, humdinger equivalents against Australia at home merely secured his reputation.

At Old Trafford today West Indies and Australia meet again. In the improbable, if not impossible, event that they will not be seeing each other again later in the summer this is the decider. They spent two months from mid- February slugging it out toe-to-toe. Australia began as the heavy-hitting favourites but how West Indies counter-punched: 2-2 in the Tests, 3-3 in the one-dayers.

Manchester, would you believe it, might feel it has had enough carnivals for one week but since it is not Rio, Trinidad or even Notting Hill, it should be able to accommodate one more. There are plenty of reasons from Brian Lara to Mark Waugh to suspect it could be tense, close and thrilling.

West Indies seemed to have become more proficient and confident with every match, since their initial sloppy defeat to Pakistan. They have lost their coach, Malcolm Marshall, who had abdominal surgery last week and will be in hospital for another week, and he is likely to be replaced temporarily by Viv Richards. Nice to be able choose from gods.

"We will miss Malcolm but we've got Clive Lloyd as a manager and I'm sure Viv will inspire us," said Jacobs. "I'm very excited about playing this match, but I'm not nervous. It's just another game now on the way to the final." That was faith talking. "The Australians are a good team but we are, and we know it now. We played badly in South Africa last winter, very badly, but we've come together more since then. We can do it, we can win every game from now on."

Jacobs, as much as the celebrated Christian, Jonty Rhodes, is propelled by his belief. If it helped him to persevere when his cricketing career remained static for most of his adult life it has also inspired him to play a full role in the Antiguan community.

"I like to see myself as a role model, I like to help youngsters to make the most of themselves through coaching them and advising them. I want to see them making the most of themselves and live a decent, full life. That doesn't have to be through cricket but it is that sort of sport. They have other sports throughout the Caribbean now. They've got basketball and football. Cricket takes a bit longer but it'll always be there, they'll see how worthwhile it is."

Jacobs' first love as a boy was football (he follows Newcastle, a support reinforced by his time playing for Philadelphia in the Durham Senior League and not diminished by their FA Cup final defeat against you know who) but he was soon ensnared by cricket. His early catching ability persuaded others that he should be encouraged to take up the gloves.

Recognition for the Leeward Islands was obstinately not followed by selection for West Indies. On Dujon's retirement a succession of wicketkeeper- batsmen were chosen, none of whom were quite up to it. The team seemed to suffer from that one weakness.

"I don't know why I couldn't get picked," said Jacobs, "but I remember that I would never give up. I put my trust in Christ and I used to pray to him sometimes and I'd feel sure it would happen. That's why I trained." He will start at Old Trafford today as one of the seventh World Cup's unequivocal successes. Two half-centuries in three innings (and that as opener against the contrary white ball) and 13 catches are simple testament to his contribution.

It is a big match, perhaps the biggest of the competition so far, because defeat could mean elimination for one of the teams. Australia will start as favourites - a status which makes the West Indies more comfortable - and they have never been more eager to emphasise what fine fettle they are in. Perhaps too keen.

Brian Lara, the West Indies captain, is wearing that radiant, slightly aloof smile again, the one that usually means resplendent form and terrible news for the opposition. He was asked about Australia's threat after Scotland were brushed aside at Leicester on Thursday. When Australia were not whingeing they were bullying, suggested the questioner, so was he prepared for the bullying now? "I have just come out of three months' cricket with Australia," said Lara in a reply which said nothing and everything.

His wrist, injured during the winter and never properly either rested or healed, is still causing him some concern though he will concede only that it is not 100 per cent and the audacity with which he finished off the Scots - four, four, two, six - did not speak of a limp wrist in any sense.

Today's game might depend on the early incisions of the fast bowlers and both Lara and Jacobs were certain of the form of Courtney and Curtly, Walsh and Ambrose. They were, said Lara, Test-match bowlers more than one-day bowlers but that made them used to trying to take wickets and that was what was needed here.

Jacobs said: "They might say they're not as fast as they were. Believe me they can be if they want to and against Australia they will want to."

You had better believe him. Today at Old Trafford might just see another rung on the ladder: the comeback of West Indies, the comedown of Australia.