Test match cricket which came alive with the hotly contested two match England - Sri Lanka series received a further boost with events as they unfolded in the Australia - West Indies encounter at Bridgetown. It is not just the result that caught the imagination of the genuine cricket lover but also the manner in which that denouement was arrived at.
Throughout the five days not only did the pendulum swing this way and that - the hallmark of a good Test match - but it was also the efforts of the captains and the players involved which proved that when it comes to true drama and sustained excitement there is no substitute for Test cricket.
On the face of it, this should have been an unequal contest. Australia are ranked joint third with India while West Indies are languishing way down in seventh place. On paper too the teams appeared to be mismatched and the overall records underlined Australia’s strength and West Indies’ weakness. The home advantage was a thing of the past for the last time the Caribbean side won a series against Australia was in 1991 when under Viv Richards they were kings of world cricket.
However under Darren Sammy one of the most underrated players in the international game, the West Indians have played some of their most inspired cricket. He has emerged as an adaptable captain besides pulling in his weight with bat and ball. And the West Indians, most of them unsung and unheralded but highly capable, have come up with heartening performances by playing above their potential.
The Australians fresh from their 4-0 thrashing of India were expected to easily carry the day but cricket has this aptitude for producing the unexpected and the inexplicable. Though the Aussies won they would be the first to admit that it was a hard fought victory over worthy opposition. The shock has been registered and one would not be surprised if the remaining two matches in the series are intensely fought.
From what one saw in the Bridgetown game there is actually little to choose between the contestants. Both Australia and the West Indies have strengths and weaknesses and it was only the greater fighting qualities of the visitors that saw them home in a close finish.
The tactical manner in which the Aussies paced the chase was symbolic of Test cricket at its best. It also brought back unhappy memories of what happened in the West Indies a year ago when the Indian team in a similar situation turned their backs on what seemed a sure victory and settled for a draw that won them few friends.
This time the target for the Aussies was 192 in about 50 overs and they won with perhaps an over to spare for bad light was always going to be a factor. In Dominica last year the Indians had to get 180 for a win in 47 overs and they shut up shop most disappointingly at 94 for three after 32 overs. And it was a match – and a series – the Indians had dominated.
By contrast there was much to commend about the positive Aussie approach. But then the final chase was not the only aspect of Australia’s cricket to be admired. Michael Clarke had given glimpses of his captaincy skills against India and it is clear that he had the potential to become one of Australia’s finest captains.
Under him Australia has already started the climb back to the top and one wouldn’t be surprised if they become No 1 during his reign. At Bridgetown he became only the second captain in the history of Test cricket to win a match after declaring behind on the first innings. The self-belief he has in himself and his boys is unbelievable. That’s the kind of approach that lifts a team’s morale, wins matches and takes you to the top.
As a match there was plenty to admire during the five days. Shivnarine Chanderpaul’s unbeaten hundred was his 25th in Test cricket and while the more glamorous stroke players hog the spotlight the Guyanese left hander prefers to battle it out for his team. At 37 and after 18 years in international cricket he has seen everything. At 37 Chanderpaul has seen it all. West Indian cricket in all its pomp, West Indian cricket down in the dumps.
But whatever the state of Caribbean cricket he has just carried on playing the sheet anchor role to perfection, running up a record that matches the best in the business and given his almost unique batting style as well as the fact that for the most part of his career he has been with a struggling side his deeds must be ranked as second to none.
The twists and turns followed. Australia’s last three batsmen adding 121 runs for the loss of one wicket, Clarke’s bold declaration, the West Indian batting collapse in the second innings and the inspired Aussie run chase on the final day all constituted the best of Test cricket. Australia were deserving winners but West Indies were gallant losers and already the opening game has made the genuine cricket enthusiasts wait impatiently for the next Test to begin.
Twenty20 and Fifty50 are enjoyable as entertainment, good for the game and its finances and certainly they have a place in cricket. I too watch these games regularly but at the risk of being called old fashioned, let me say it again – there is no real substitute for Test cricket, the engrossing tussle between bat and ball and the elaborate strategic moves and tactical planning.