Taylor is wary of a home revival

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The Independent Online
Tony Cozier on the way back for the West Indies against a solid Australia

After two back-to-back Tests in the space of 11 days, Australia and the West Indies are taking a welcome breather over the Easter weekend, preparing for the last two similarly tightly-spaced games that will decide the series.

The Australians, who will start a three-day match against a team of aspiring young West Indies Test players in St Kitts today, enjoy a1-0 lead in the series following their three-day victory by 10 wickets in the first Test in Barbados. They were in marginally the better position before the weather intervened to spoil a fascinating second Test in Antigua and their captain, Mark Taylor, was not overstating the case in his post match assessment. "Psychologically we've got our noses in front, no doubt about that,'' he said.

He is conscious enough of the West Indies' record of recovering from such deficits to be wary of their capacity to do so again.

"We've had this situation before and we didn't go on to win the series but I'm very happy with the way we are situated at the moment,'' he said.

The West Indies recovered from the same 1-0 deficit to win the last two Tests, also back-to-back, the last time the teams met in Australia two years ago.

The West Indies' revival then was inspired by three factors - Brian Lara's scintillating 277 at Sydney responding to an Australian first innings of 503 for 9 declared only three days after a defeat in Melbourne, the fierce pride in maintaining a record of not losing a series since 1980 and, above all, the irresistible bowling of Curtly Ambrose.

While Lara's form suggests a major innings is imminent and the motivation of keeping the record is stronger than ever, there are no signs of Ambrose repeating his feats of 1992/93 when he took 19 wickets in the last two Tests, including a 7 for 1 spell in Perth.

The Antiguan has been the chief weapon in attack from the moment he burst into the team in 1988, with his role becoming more important with the retirement of Malcolm Marshall and the spinal stress fracture that incapacitated Ian Bishop.

The toll of whirling over his elongated right arm for 50 Tests, for the Leeward Islands and for four seasons for Northamptonshire, has had an effect. The muscles around the shoulder became so weak doctors ordered him to take four months off and recommended a course of weight training.

Ambrose missed the West Indies' tour of India from October to December, returned for the short two-Test tour of New Zealand in the New Year and hoped to be back to his best against Australia.

It has proved a forlorn wish. He has managed only three wickets from 53 overs in the two Tests and lacked the controlled hostility that had earned him 124 wickets at an average of 21.11 and a No 1 world rating prior to the series.

Ambrose accepts his plight and is philosophical about it. "I had a couple of months off which was needed but I'm still short of work," he said. "It's [the shoulder] taken a little bit longer than expected to get back into top shape.''

While Ambrose has struggled, Courtney Walsh, who has spent his 11 years in Test cricket mainly in the shadow of various fast bowlers, has come to the fore. He took 17 wickets in the three Tests in India, 13 in the second in New Zealand and nine in the Antigua Test.

But unlike the heyday of West Indian fast bowling in the 1980s, there is little in reserve. West Indian hopes in this series depend on whether Ambrose can find the strength in his shoulder and the belief in himself to partner Walsh and unsettle an Australian team that so far seems unshakeable.

SECOND TEST (Antigua): Australia 216 (C A Walsh 5-64) and 300 for 7 dec (S Waugh 65); West Indies 260 (B C Lara 88) and 80 for 2. Match drawn. First Test (Barbados): Australia won by 10 wickets.