King's new mood brings best of Samuels

Their emphatic victories over the ICC's World team swiftly restored their self-esteem and eased much of the vilification heaped on their heads following the surrender of the Ashes in England a month earlier. In the one-day matches, Shane Watson, the strapping Queenslander who spent last season with Hampshire, emerged as the all-rounder they had clearly missed in England.

In the inappropriately dubbed Super Test, Matt-hew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist reverted to type after their tribulations against Andrew Flintoff and company during the summer. Hayden's 111 and 77 made him man of the match, Gilchrist thumped eight fours and four sixes in his first-innings 94.

A week later, Michael Clarke and Simon Katich, two other Ashes underachievers, reeled off hundreds for New South Wales in the Pura Cup. Talk of replacing Ricky Ponting as captain has disappeared, Glenn McGrath has kept his ankle well clear of errant balls and Shane Warne has used his mobile phone prudently. So the loss of the Ashes has already been dismissed as an aberration that will be put right when England come to defend them next season. The Austral-ians are ready to reassert their position as the game's most intimidating team, initially in a series of three Tests against West Indies starting here on Thursday.

Given their opponents' record of two wins against 15 losses in their previous 21 Tests and the sponsorship dispute that led to the absence of their major players on a tour of Sri Lanka in July and August, a television poll on Friday in which 79 per cent predicted an Australian clean sweep was not surprising.

But West Indies are now back to full strength, and their performance in their only warm-up match, against Queensland, a team packed with six Test players, has altered that conviction. Their massive first-innings 612 earned them a lead of 289 yesterday, and the early removal of Hayden for 22 when Queensland batted again presented a chance for a morale-boosting win.

There has been an unmistakeable sense of purpose and self-assurance not detected in West Indies teams for some time, which is attributed by the players mainly to the Australian coach, Bennett King, and his all-Australian support staff.

Another low score by Brian Lara, who followed his sequence of 0, 5, 0, 5 and 36 in the Super Series with a fifth-ball dismissal for one, is a worry. But he was favouring a sore left little finger that forced him to bat at No 8, and the Australians know from past experiences that the champion left-hander is capable of suddenly exploding into his best touch at any time.

West Indies were more buoyed by the fast bowler Daren Powell's four wickets on the opening day, a solid 115 by Devon Smith on the second and, above all, by Marlon Samuels' exquisite 257 yesterday.

Samuels' promise was obvious in his debut series here four years ago, when he was just 19. He has fallen well short of expectations in the interim and has been kept out of Test cricket since 2003 by the frustrated selectors. But his potential is impossible to disregard and he was chosen for this tour, possibly his last chance. Even Lara could not have surpassed the strokeplay that produced eight sixes and 34 fours in six-and-a-half flawless, magical hours.

Smith is 23 years old, Samuels 24. Five others 25 or under will be in the side on Thursday. There seems to be hope after all for West Indies cricket. The coming month will tell whether or not it is misplaced.

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