A fascinating series ahead

The Australians will go about their task with clinical efficiency in the four Tests, and the seven one-dayers, but they do have some worries, especially concerning their attack.

S. DINAKAR

Jason Gillespie is back in the squad and that is good news for Australia.-Pic. REUTERS

One, ruthless and rock-like, the King of the mind game. The other, moody and mercurial, the Prince of the willow game.

Stephen Rodger Waugh faces off with Brian Charles Lara in the land of sunshine and sand. It should be fascinating.

Two of the most influential cricketers of our times, rejoining an Old Rivalry. Waugh, the eternal fire fighter, Lara, the magical match-winner.

Waugh, forever in quest of success, leading the side, probably for one last time, Lara, giving captaincy another fling, attempts to put back the pieces.

At stake will be pride and honour. Waugh desperately wants the No.1 Test status back for Australia whereas Lara appears hell bent on recapturing lost glory for the Caribbeans.

What a wonderful sight it would be if Waugh holds firm and Lara waltzes. Being inspirational, their teams are bound to take the cue.

The Australians will go about their task with clinical efficiency in the four Tests, and the seven one-dayers, but they do have some worries, especially concerning their attack.

Formidable leg-spinner Shane Warne, under a drug cloud, will not be around, while, at the time of writing, it is still unclear when pace ace Glenn McGrath, who flew home to tend to his ailing wife, will return - if he would do so at all (Brad Williams has flown in to the West Indies as a cover for McGrath).

An incisive pace-spin combination, McGrath and Warne, have played a major hand in Aussie triumphs over the years, and Waugh, will be hard pressed to replace them in Test match cricket.

On Australia's last tour of the Caribbean in '99, it was McGrath who sent down one searching over after another, under the heat and pressure, as Australia bounced back to level a dramatic, thrill-a-moment series 2-2. McGrath, the mean machine, is the one consistent factor in the Aussie attack.

The good news for the Aussies though is the gradual recovery from injury of Jason Gillespie, always sharp and probing. If Gillespie is fit and firing, several of Waugh's problems could be solved.

Of course, the Aussie captain still has one of the two fastest bowlers in the game, Brett Lee. The fiery paceman was great form during the World Cup, unleashing those nasty short-pitched deliveries, those wicked reverse-swinging yorkers.

The surfaces in the Caribbean might have slowed down considerably since the days of the Marshall menace. However, Lee's speed in the air could still prove the deciding factor if the Test series, that gets underway at Georgetown on April 10, runs close. Lee is quick, and he's dangerous.

Andy Bichel, with his ability to move the ball around, has emerged a fine support paceman in recent times, while left-arm Chinaman bowler Brad Hogg, who does get his flippers and the wrong `uns to hurry through, could prove more than handy.

The smooth stroking Damien Martyn 's finger injury has meant a rare opportunity for Michael Clarke; the awesome Aussies have enough depth in the ranks. The opening partnership of Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer is the most dominant in the game, and these two southpaws of contrasting methods and technique, can so easily take the contest away from the opposition.

Hayden's battle with the much improved West Indian pace spearhead Mervyn Dillon will be particularly interesting. And Ricky Ponting, the impressive all-round shot-maker who has matured considerably, should thrive on the Caribbean pitches.

Of course, Steve Waugh will be around to manage a crisis situation. This will be an emotional tour for the 37-year-old New South Welshman. The last time around, when he journeyed to the West Indies, he had just taken over from the long-standing Mark Taylor.

Now, he is probably in the last leg of what has been a truly remarkable and eventful career. He took his time before saying `yes' to this Caribbean campaign, and knowing the man, his instinct to fight, and his nose for a battle, he will strive to make his decision count.

However, in Test cricket, the Aussies have not yet managed to find an adequate replacement for the classy Mark Waugh, with the likes of Darren Lehmann, stillnot inspiring confidence. There may be a hint of vulnerability about the Aussie middle-order, but then, you can always argue that the explosive Adam Gilchrist can rescue the situation if things go wrong.

In contrast to the powerful Aussies, the West Indians are passing through a rebuilding stage, and truth to tell, Carl Hooper was doing a good job of handling the youngsters. However his form with the willow dropped, and this must have prompted Sir Vivian Richards and his team of selectors to look at Lara, who will make a fresh beginning.

Such is the nature of Lara's brilliance that he can ignite this West Indian side. On the flip side, if runs dry up, he could lose motivation. This is the gamble the Caribbean selectors have chosen to take.

The Trinidadian did whip up magic in '99 as captain, inspiring the West Indians from impossible positions, with `death or glory' batting, conjuring 546 runs at an average of 91 in the series, three sizzling three-figure knocks dotting his run of scores. That was Lara at the peak of his powers.

He can still pull out a knock that makes a difference, as in the World Cup duel against the Proteas at the Newlands, an effort sprinkled with scorching drives, pulls and cuts.

Lara will be the key, however, there is no dearth of talent in the West Indian line-up. Ramnaresh Sarwan is lovely little player, with sparkling footwork and strokes, while Marlon Samuels is a batsman with the gift of timing.

The lazily elegant Chris Gayle and the hard-hitting Wavell Hinds, are an attacking left-handed opening pair, and the West Indians will always have the experience and tenacity of Shivnarine Chanderpaul. If the selectors decide to retain Hooper as a specialist batsman, he could still beef up the middle-order.

The West Indian pace attack has shown signs of improvement, and in the speedy Jermaine Lawson, who was so shabbily treated by the think-tank during the World Cup, the side has a bowler who can crash through defences in the old fashioned Caribbean way. If Lawson is buzzing, he could make the Aussies sweat a bit.

Much will depend on Dillon's strikes - he does seem to be enjoying his role as the No. 1 paceman - and there are a few more viable pace bowling options like left-armer Pedro Collins and the under-rated Vasbert Drakes, who does have the knack of hitting the deck.

The Aussies handle leg-spin well and it remains to be seen whether Narendra Nagamotoo or Dinanath Ramnarine have a role to play. The Caribbeans would do well to field an off-spinner.

The Aussies will start as the favoutites, but it would be unwise to dismiss the West Indian challenge. Indeed, there will be no dearth of possibilities with men like Waugh and Lara - - `fire-fighter' and the `artist' - - around.