Sarwan century bears hallmark of a leader

Ramnaresh Sarwan fashioned an innings here befitting a batsman in his 48th Test and carrying the responsibility of the vice-captaincy.

Yet the stylish Guyanese is less than two months into his 25th year with the best part of his career ahead of him. He already fills the pivotal No 3 position and, perhaps sooner rather than later, will find himself as leader of a team whose stocks now stand as low as at any time since the West Indies were first feeling their way in Test cricket in the Thirties.

These were circumstances to test his character. He was peculiarly off colour at Lord's. The touch he displayed during the one-day matches in the NatWest Series had deserted him.

He was twice lbw cheaply, jumping across his stumps, as he had been in the first two Tests against the same opponents in the Caribbean a few months earlier. He was leaden-footed in the outfield where he had once sparkled, his usually strong arm so weak he took to relaying throws from the deep underhand.

He spent the first day and a half here chasing leather in the field as England's batsmen once more exposed the frailties of the West Indies bowling and fielding. He sent down nine respectable overs of containing leg-spin from round the wicket but his role in the team is to make, not save, runs.

The situation could scarcely have been bleaker when he emerged from the pavilion 20 minutes before tea on the second afternoon, so surprised by the first-over dismissal of Devon Smith that he appeared while hastily adjusting his forearm guard.

Soon Chris Gayle was gone too and the board showed 12 for 2, replying to 566 for 9 declared. It was a situation to which he has had to become familiar in these times of struggle but his personal circumstances were not usual. A choice had to be made between reconstruction of the innings by the orthodox method of care and caution and personal revival by the attacking manner to which he is most accustomed and best suited.

It was not a straightforward decision by any means. He took the latter course. Depending on your point of view, it was either a bold or a foolhardy course. Whatever it was, it worked. It required luck and there were a couple of edged slashes. But the approach did get his feet moving in the right direction again, either right back or right forward. The bat also began to come down straight, rather than across the ball.

With Brian Lara in prime form at the opposite end, pride, so undermined yet again by the bowling and fielding, was restored in the best West Indian tradition of batsmanship. A packed Edgbaston had a second day it would never forget - and it was not simply because of Andy Flintoff's explosive hitting.

There was more high-quality play from Sarwan and Lara yesterday morning. Even after Lara allowed his concentration to be so upset by Flintoff's slower ball that he carelessly sliced the next delivery high to gully, Sarwan and Shivnarine Chanderpaul carried the fight into the afternoon.

The problem is that this West Indies team remain shrouded in the self-doubt and defeatism created by 29 losses in 39 overseas Tests since 1997. England and Australia went through the same disability during the Eighties.

No matter how high the balloon soars, it only requires a pin-prick to burst it. It was punctured as soon as Sarwan chopped Flintoff (who else?) back into his stumps and came rapidly down to earth.

A team playing with as much confidence and efficiency as England are at present would not let such a chance pass them by. The last seven wickets tumbled for 39 from 20.5 overs and, as they were at Lord's, the West Indies were left with two and a half days to try to save the Test.

Back to his best, Sarwan will carry much of the side's responsibility in the salvage operation. In the longer term, his proven qualities of leadership are what the West Indies will require most.

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