A loss, but not a humiliation for the home team

AUSTRALIA began their Caribbean tour in the knowledge only a series of exceptional innings from an explosive left-handed batsman could feasibly undermine their bid to retain the Frank Worrell Trophy.

ANDREW RAMSEY

Justin Langer and Ricky Ponting had a whale of a time, cracking centuries in the first innings and forging a useful stand in the second. — Pic. AP-

AUSTRALIA began their Caribbean tour in the knowledge only a series of exceptional innings from an explosive left-handed batsman could feasibly undermine their bid to retain the Frank Worrell Trophy.

And that's precisely what happened on day one of the four-Test tour, although the fireworks came not — as expected — from the flashing blade of Brian Lara, but instead the historically subdued Shivnarine Chanderpaul.

If Australia's eventual nine-wicket victory with a day and a half to spare came as no surprise, the fact that Chanderpaul flogged a shellshocked Australian attack to all parts of his home ground in Georgetown to post the third-fastest century in Test history most certainly did.

What was even more remarkable — if that's possible — was the fact that any West Indian was able to fashion resistance given the state of utter chaos Caribbean cricket appeared to be in during the lead-up to the series opener.

Australia had arrived in Guyana a week before the first Test facing questions about their state of readiness for a full Test series given a majority of their squad had spent just a handful of days at home digesting and recovering from their World Cup triumph in South Africa.

But they received an immediate tonic when they discovered that West Indies cricket was so caught up in another of its regular bouts of pandemonium that the touring opposition ranked quite lowly on the list of immediate West Indian concerns.

In the space of four days, the bemused Australians watched as Brian Lara was installed as captain with deposed skipper Carl Hooper named in the squad to contest the first Test only to have him pull out of the game and reportedly quit international cricket.

At about the same time, Jamaican opening batsmen Chris Gayle was being asked to explain why he had opted to bypass his nation's appearance in the final of the region's premier first-class competition (the Carib Beer Cup) against Barbados and instead join Hooper in a double-wicket exhibition tournament being staged in St. Lucia.

A hurried investigation was launched by the West Indies Cricket Board, which issued an interim ruling that Gayle was eligible for selection in the opening Test until such time as the inquiry was completed. The national selectors then duly decided not to pick him.

Further adding to the confusion, Australia's Bennett King (currently head coach of Australia's renowned cricket academy in Adelaide) was moved to challenge the WICB's formal announcement that he had been appointed West Indies coach for the next two years to replace Roger Harper. King pointed out no such agreement had been reached, and the WICB was forced into an embarrassing back-down in which they claimed King was their preferred candidate for the job and nothing more.

A day later King announced he did not want the job, obviously disillusioned by the way in which his potential employers had mismanaged his appointment. His deputy Gus Logie — who was installed as caretaker coach for the Australian series — knew nothing of this development until he was informed by members of the Australian media two days before the Test started.

The final straw came when seven members of the Test squad — the Barbadian and Jamaican players involved in the Carib Beer final — then took a full two days to make the trip from Barbados to Guyana to prepare for the opening Test, which meant Logie's revamped team was granted a solitary training session to meet, greet and practice before the coin toss at Bourda Oval.

By any international sporting standards it was an embarrassingly amateurish operation. Contrasted with the ultra-professional (if not a little jaded) Australian unit, it smacked of an imminent disaster.

So it was hardly surprising when — having won the toss and rightly chosen to bat first on a flat, lifeless Bourda pitch — the West Indies failed to capitalise on some wayward Australian bowling, and instead collapsed to be 5-89 at the first lunch break. In part their problems were due to some dubious lbw decisions, but equally culpable was some ill-advised shot-making.

It was then that Chanderpaul — who had asked to bat down the order at number six despite the absence of Gayle, Hooper and Ramnaresh Sarwan who was nursing a broken finger — launched his stunning assault.

His 50 arrived off 37 balls with seven fours and a six, whipping the parochial Guyanese crowd into a state of delirium. The fact his next 50 came off five fewer balls was testimony to his timing and placement given the Australians by that stage were desperately trying to stem the flow.

The slim 28-year-old pulled and cut with impunity against the pace of Jason Gillespie, Brett Lee and Andy Bichel, then was equally savage on anything wayward served up by wrist spinners Stuart MacGill and Brad Hogg.

Australian captain Steve Waugh had lobbied to take five specialist bowlers into this Test — a dramatic departure from almost two decades of established Australian cricket wisdom in which four bowlers always sufficed — because he knew it would be hard work claiming 20 wickets on such a benign pitch. His fears proved well founded while Chanderpaul was at the crease.

The soft-spoken batsman from Unity Village had never before scored a century against Australia, and an attack which was minus Glenn McGrath (in Australia due to a family illness) and Shane Warne (serving a 12-month ban for a doping offence) was unable to quell him.

Chanderpaul admitted the Aus<147,3,1>tralians' competitiveness brings out the best in his batting. "They never give up, they're diehard cricketers and the way they play — the toughness of them — they make you work for everything you get,'' he said. ``If you get a run out there they make you work for it. That's the way they turn you on to play good cricket.''

When he was finally dismissed it was courtesy of a painful crack on the inside of his left knee which rendered him unfit to field for the remainder of the match. At the other end was veteran wicketkeeper Ridley Jacobs who was already batting with a runner because he had badly torn a groin muscle when playing an exuberant pull shot off MacGill.

Despite Chanderpaul's heroics, the West Indies first innings of 237 was at least 150 runs short of a competitive total on such a placid pitch, and the fact they had capitulated within two sessions meant Australia were not only in charge, but were playing the game at their preferred pace.

By stumps on day one the tourists were 1-120, and by the time their second wicket fell the next day — Ricky Ponting after a typically commanding 117 — they were already 48 runs ahead. Eventual man of the match Justin Langer went on to complete an authoritative 146, making good his promise to redress the poor batting results he had achieved in previous series against the West Indies.

Adam Gilchrist rubbed salt into the locals' wounds with a typically belligerent 77 as Australia amassed 489 (a lead of 252) at such a rate they had the West Indies back at the crease before stumps on day two.

The great disappointment of the West Indies bowling effort was precisely that. With the exception of Vasbert Drakes who bowled with purpose and control to finish with 5-93, the Caribbean quicks were lacklustre, profligate and predictable. The worst criticism was reserved for Mervyn Dillon, the only bowler in the team with 100 Test wickets to his name, who lacked fire <147,4,0>and fight and managed just one wicket for the match.

Fears of a three-day Test were averted when Lara produced the sort of an innings the Australians had dreaded. Seemingly oblivious to the chaos around him and ignoring the jeers from sections of the partisan Guyana crowd, Lara called on all his powers of concentration and discipline to fashion a flawless 110.

His 185-run third-wicket partnership with fellow-Trinidadian Daren Ganga — who broke through for his maiden Test century in his 18th appearance — was a record for the West Indies at Bourda, and for the second time in as many Tests (after England's convincing win in the final Ashes Test in Sydney) Australia appeared bereft of answers without their key strike bowlers.

But the game turned in the third day's final hour when Lara clumsily swept and hit his stumps with his bat, and Ganga holed out against the friendly part-time spin of Darren Lehmann. Entering the final day 129 runs ahead, Lara had already indicated his team needed another 120 or so to set Australia a challenging last-day target. Instead, they suffered a familiar collapse triggered by Gillespie's inspired bowling (5-39) during which the West Indies' last five wickets fell for 17 runs in the space of 8.2 overs.

Needing just 147 to win, Australia rattled them off before tea on the fourth day thanks once more to Langer (78 not out) and Ponting (42 not out).

``I didn't think we were completely at our best, but we played well,'' Waugh said after the match.

``It's been a long time since the guys have played a Test match together. Coming off the victorious World Cup, it possibly could've been hard for some of those guys to switch on, so overall it was a good performance. We'll improve. We'll get better.''

For Logie and Lara, it may have been a loss but it was far from the abject humiliation they appeared likely to face given the destabilising build-up.

"All the things that happened around us, we knew that was something that would affect us,'' Logie said.

``But we tried to put that behind us, be as positive as possible. The atmosphere in the dressing room has been very, very cohesive and that's what we are trying to build, a cohesive unit.

"When people respect each other, when people try to share with each other, at the end of the day we have seen some kind of improvement there and we are hopeful the players continue to buy into that.''