An absorbing series

IT is interesting how both the West Indies and Zimbabwe credit their improvement — resurgence in the former's case — as Test nations to their recent series against Australia.

IT is interesting how both the West Indies and Zimbabwe credit their improvement — resurgence in the former's case — as Test nations to their recent series against Australia. Ray Price, the Zimbabwe left-arm spinner, had said in an interview that the side now believes it can win Test matches.

Brian Lara (middle), the West Indies captain smiles with teammates holding the trophy, Fidel Edwards (left) and Jerome Taylor after winning the Test series against Zimbabwe in Bulawayo. — Pic. AP-

"It was really encouraging for the guys to see that we can compete against the best. I think one thing the guys learnt a lot of was to play their own games and be themselves, and not to be afraid to attack the bowlers. Now hopefully, we will have that frame of mind again, and if we fight that hard against all our other opponents, I think we'll win some Tests this year," said Price, who took 19 wickets in the recent series against the West Indies while also becoming only the third Zimbabwean (after Paul Strang and Adam Huckle) to take 10 wickets in a Test.

The Caribbeans won the two-Test series 1-0, with the 128-run win in the second Test in Bulawayo being Brian Lara's first win in an away Test as West Indies captain. Lara has led West Indies in 26 Tests, winning nine, drawing four and losing 13.

"A lot of people will say that Zimbabwe are one of the minnows of world cricket, but I thought the 11 guys who played 10 days of Test cricket against us were very determined," said the left-hander, who notched up a match-winning 191 in the first innings. He was declared Man of the Match for his magnificent effort.

"The Zimbabweans were very confident after the drawn first Test, they knew that they could have beaten us. But it was always going to be a tall order chasing over 200 on this pitch. I must say that this was a good workout for us going into the away series against South Africa (December, four Tests and five ODIs)," said the Caribbean leader, who, during the course of that century, became West Indies' highest run-getter in Test history.

Brian Lara, who made a magnificent 191 in the second Test, drives Blessing Mahwire. — Pic. AFP-

Lara, who holds the record for the highest individual score in first class cricket (501 not out), said winning his maiden away Test and series as captain was more special than emerging his country's highest Test run-getter. "My away record as skipper has been abysmal, seven matches lost. I'm sure that Clive Lloyd is happy we are bringing home his figurine," Lara said, referring to the trophy named after the former West Indian captain.

"Our goal coming here was to win the Test series and we have accomplished that, perhaps not as stylishly as we would have liked to, but efficiently enough," said Lara, whose record of the highest individual Test score was upstaged by Australian powerhouse, Matthew Hayden, against this very opposition.

This is Lara's second stint as skipper and his approach has certainly been refreshing and different. In fact, recently he had said that the successful record-chase of 418 against Australia — that series on the whole — saw his young side take a giant step as a team. "After being 0-3 down in the four-Test series and world champion Australia looking for a white-wash and we trying to cling on. It was simply fabulous," said Lara.

Five-wicket man Fidel Edwards has just accounted for Mark Vermeulen in the first Test. — Pic. REUTERS-

The second Test could have certainly gone the other way had Zimbabwe still possessed batsmen with the ability and temperament of Andy Flower and Murray Goodwin.

Mark Vermeulen's gritty maiden Test century helped Zimbabwe to a fighting total of 337 on day three and stay in the hunt, despite fine bowling by Corey Collymore who took four wickets. This was in reply to the Caribbeans' first innings score of 481, fashioned by Lara's magnificence and half-centuries by Wavell Hinds and Ramnaresh Sarwan. Price took five wickets and Blignaut four.

When bad light again brought an early close to the day's play, West Indies was 13 for one in its second essay with an overall lead of 117.

Vermeulen, who walked in at No. 3, displayed loads of concentration and purpose in his innings, despite losing overnight partner Craig Wishart, with whom he had put on 154 for the third wicket, early. Wishart missed what would have been his second Test century when he aimed to play Collymore across the line and fell leg-before.

It was a crumbling strip that the teams competed on on day four and 18 wickets fell.

West Indies crumbled for 128 (Price taking four wickets), but displayed tremendous determination to reduce the home side to 90 for nine at stumps. The visitor sealed victory 40 minutes into the final morning.

"During Zimbabwe's second innings our watchword was patience. We had to be patient on such a pitch, putting the ball in the right areas, allowing the surface and the anxiety of the batsmen to do the rest was all that was necessary. It worked quite well and I'm proud of the guys for showing great character and team spirit. Collymore has had two hard Test matches and must be in need of rest. We were severely hampered with the loss of a bowler in each of the two Test matches and we have to safeguard ourselves against that recurrence," said Lara.

Lara said Hinds is turning out to be one of the most consistent batsmen of the side. The opener in fact had crossed the 2000-mark in Test cricket at Bulawayo.

Mark Vermuelen acknowledges the cheers for his maiden Test century. This was in Harare. -- Pic. REUTERS-

Even as the Caribbeans celebrated the triumph current selector Joe Carew expressed concern about the team's frail batting. "I was disappointed in the first innings of the second Test where I thought that over 600 runs should have been scored, and more so in the second innings where we batted atrociously. The players must continue to work hard and develop their games," concluded the former vice-captain.

Actually, the Caribbeans had just about managed to stave off defeat in the opening Test at Harare. In fact, Ridley Jacobs, who made 60 not out, and No. 11 Fidel Edwards survived the last 11.5 overs, with the Zimbabweans sniffing blood and in search of a rare victory after having lost their last 11 Tests.

"That was tough. When you look on the scoreboard and you see there are more than 11 overs to go and you're batting with the last man, you start getting worried. But I told him to play straight and stay strong, and we got the job done," said the 'keeper-batsman.

Zimbabwe skipper Heath Streak was adjudged Man of the Match for his all-round display.

In fact, it had been his undefeated 127 and half-centuries by Tatenda Taibu and Andy Blignaut which saw the home side recover from 154 for five to the final first innings tally of 507 for nine declared. For the visitor, Edwards took five wickets.

Left-arm spinner Ray Price (second from right) was a revelation, with 19 wickets in the series. He's just scalped Brian Lara in the first innings of the first Test. _ Pic. AP-

After having gained a first innings lead of 172, Streak probably delayed his declaration, waiting until shortly before the close of the morning session, setting the Caribbeans a target of 372.

Chris Gayle and Hinds departed in quick succession while Streak accounted for Lara (a debatable LBW decision, though, by Billy Bowden). After applying themselves for a while, Daren Ganga and Ramnaresh Sarwan cracked under the pressure created by Price and Trevor Gripper. Chanderpaul and Jacobs, the last two batsmen, put up a good fight for nearly 78 minutes, playing for a draw, when the former was dismissed.

Andy Blignaut came up with an inspired spell of mediumpace, claiming Drakes and Jerome Taylor (194 for 8). Collymore was caught at silly mid-off off Price.

And just when it seemed to be curtains for the Caribbeans, Jacobs and Edwards fought it out in fading light.