Caribbeans hold on to their emblem

West Indian captain Brian Lara with the one-day series trophy after just managing to beat Zimbabwe.-- Pic. AP-

THE Caribbeans are humming again. After a hard-earned Test series win over Zimbabwe, Brian Lara's men put in that extra effort when the side needed it the most to clinch the ODI series 3-2.

THE Caribbeans are humming again. After a hard-earned Test series win over Zimbabwe, Brian Lara's men put in that extra effort when the side needed it the most to clinch the ODI series 3-2.

Zimbabwe might not be the strongest of outfits, more so in recent times without the Flower brothers. However, the West Indian wins came away from home, which must have been heartening to the side.

The islanders have been poor tourists over the past few years, displaying neither the application nor the attitude to succeed away from home. The series in Zimbabwe could mark a new beginning for the West Indians.

They did have their moments of uncertainty in the ODI series, and Zimbabwe did take a threatening 2-1 lead, with two matches remaining. However, the Caribbeans managed to swing things around, thanks to influential performances from Chris Gayle and Fidel Edwards.

Chris Gayle shone both with the bat and the ball. He struck two hundreds in the series -- in the first match as well as in the last. He also took four wickets in the last match. Here he is in an aggressive mood in the fourth one-dayer in which he scored a half-century.-- Pic. AP-

As skipper Lara, who laid much stress on the famous Caribbean passion and pride, wrote in his column published in the Trinidad Guardian newspaper, "I had indeed said after the end of the Australian home series that we would not be losing another series in 2003. I meant it.

"In the end, I'm proud of the character and the fight that the team showed. And if we think about it, character and fighting spirit are indeed excellent qualities for any team, even more so for a young team to possess."

Gayle, donning the hat of a match-winner, swept the Zimbabweans away in the decider at Harare. With the series balanced at 2-2, the Caribbeans did need someone to pull out something special.

First, the tall, lithe Jamaican dented the Zimbabwe innings with his off-spin, claiming four for 24 off 10 overs; key batsmen Mark Vermeulen and Craig Wishart were among his victims.

Then, with Zimbabwe managing just 196, Gayle destroyed the home attack with a blistering 112 not out reaching the three-figure mark in just 69 deliveries; his first fifty consumed only 39 balls.

The Windies romped home by eight wickets, 24.2 overs still remaining in the contest, and a series was won. While Lara marshalled his men well at crunch times, Gayle stood tall with 325 runs at a stunning 128.33 and seven wickets (eco. 2.75), in the series.

Not surprisingly, Gayle was adjudged the Man of the Series. While his talent has never been in question, this West Indian has, on occasions, left his admirers disappointed, perishing to some ordinary strokes.

However, when in mood, he hits through the line with effortless ease, against both the pacemen and the spinners. The southpaw has the habit of clearing the fence with regularity and is easily one of the most powerful strikers of the ball in contemporary cricket.

Chris Gayle taken the wicket of Mark Vermeulen in the first onedayer. -- Pic. AP-

Gayle had been in his element in the first match at Bulawayo too, striking 19 fours and a six in his 160-ball unbeaten 153. There appears to be a lot more consistency in Gayle's performances, a good sign for the West Indies.

His off-spin has been more than useful, and Gayle has often been called upon to operate in the end overs. He does possess a handy yorker, not quite the delivery you would expect from an off-spinner, and can surprise the batsman with those quicker deliveries.

Not a big spinner of the ball, he brings about changes in the pace and trajectory of his deliveries to keep the batsmen in check. Gayle certainly had the Zimbabweans in more than a spot of bother in the final game.

If Gayle made the difference in the decisive clash, then young paceman Fidel Edwards landed a huge blow to Zimbabwe's series winning aspirations in the fourth match with a sensational display of bowling in his first ODI.

West Indian opener Wavell Hinds was in great touch in the fourth one-dayer, running up a century. — Pic. AFP.-

Edwards had made a distinct impression in the Test series against the Sri Lankans at home last season with his pace and fire, but this promising bowler was considered more suitable to Tests than the ODIs.

However, when the Caribbeans found themselves in a tight corner, the West Indian think-tank brought in Edwards as the fling of the dice, and this exciting paceman with a sling action, struck with his first delivery in the ODIs, uprooting Barney Rosers' middle stump.

In his second over, he sent back Vusi Sibanda and Craig Wishart off successive deliveries and Edwards cut through the Zimbabwe line-up to finish with six for 22 and the host, chasing 223 in 32 overs (a revised target), managed just 150 for seven.

This was a critical point of the series as a Zimbabwean victory would have given them the trophy.

Earlier, put in, the West Indians rattled up 256 for three in 45 overs, before the innings was cut short by rain. The highlight of the West Indian effort was a strokeful 127 by Gayle's opening partner Wavell Hinds, who struck ten fours and four sixes in 141 balls.

It was a dream debut for Fidel Edwards, who bagged six wickets in the fourth one-dayer. Here he traps Craig Wishart leg before. — Pic. REUTERS-

Hinds, whose ways at the crease have that distinct Caribbean dash and flavour, has managed to resurrect his career, after a rather uncertain phase where runs proved elusive, and there appeared to be a crisis of form and confidence.

The West Indian batting was certainly seen in all its glory in the first match at Bulawayo, where the side ran up a massive 347 for six in 50 overs, with Gayle making 153 and Lara, a breathtaking 113, the gifted southpaw facing only 82 balls, before going past the hundred mark. It was an inspirational effort from the captain.

However, the inconsistency in the West Indian batting came to the fore in the next ODI at the same venue, with the side being shot out for 125, Marlon Samuels' unbeaten 36 being the highest individual score in a sorry scorecard. With No. 3 Mark Vermeulen remaining unbeaten on 66, the Zimbabweans did not encounter too many problems in surpassing this meagre total.

The West Indian batting let the side down again in the third ODI in Harare, with the visiting side, in pursuit of 230, bowled out for 208, Gayle's 61 saving the side from deep embarrassment. This was a game where the pace combination of skipper Heath Streak and Andy Blignaut caused most of the damage, with the latter's four for 43 ending up as the most productive display by a Zimbabwean in the series.

It was a rather spineless West Indian batting performance and Lara did not have much to say after the game — "I think our approach needs to be looked at. I just thought, our attitude going out today may have been a little too relaxed."

The Zimbabweans, going through a transition phase caused due to a variety of reasons, deserve credit for winning the two games. The side still has plenty of batting worries and the fact that Streak, a bowling all-rounder, topped the Zimbabwean aggregate for the series with 142 runs in five games tells its own story.

Vermeulen notched up two half centuries, Taibu produced a spirited 66 in the fourth ODI, and opener Vusi Sibanda and Craig Wishart in the middle-order made 50s in the first match. However, Zimbabwe's batting worked only in fits and starts.

In the Zimbabwe bowling, Streak and Blignaut, the quickest of the pack, impressed in parts, while Sean Ervine struck some useful blows with his well directed medium-pacers. But the best bowler in the home team's ranks was left-arm spinner Ray Price, whose figures of 10-2-16-2 in the second ODI were outstanding indeed.

Zimbabwe did have its moments, but in the end, it was the West Indians who were celebrating. Said Lara, "we were determined that the number eighth ranked team in the world would not beat us at either at the Test or the one-day levels...I hope that is more an indication to our fans that we feel the passion just like you do."

Andy Blignaut was incisive in the fourth one-dayer, picking up four wickets. Here he has trapped Brian Lara leg before in the second one-dayer. — Pic. REUTERS-

He pointed out that Zimbabwe, that had returned from a demanding campaign in Australia, did not prove an easy team to overcome. "The wake up call came early for us with the first Test ending in a nail-biting finish with us barely holding on to the West Indies emblem on our gear."

The Windies captain spoke about the need to protect his young fast bowlers such as Edwards. "The youthfulness of our bowling attack was an issue in both series and the task of protecting whilst developing our very young bowlers remains a serious challenge."

The Caribbeans, after a testing but eventually satisfying campaign in Zimbabwe, will take on the powerful Proteas in South Africa, with the first Test beginning on December 13. Lara is well aware of the streak of inconsistency in the side. "The major challenge is the tendency to play good one day and fall back in the next. As we move into the critical series against the number two ranked team in the world, understanding and correcting this is our biggest task."

For the moment though, the West Indian emblem remains intact.