The home team is positively beaming

Corey Collymore, who ripped the heart out of the Sri Lankan second innings in the second Test with a seven-wicket haul, castles Hashan Tillekeratne.-Pic. AP

IT was only fitting that the West Indies concluded the season on a triumphant note. The resurgent Caribbeans under Brian Lara played bright cricket for much of the home season, a fact not always reflected in the results.

IT was only fitting that the West Indies concluded the season on a triumphant note. The resurgent Caribbeans under Brian Lara played bright cricket for much of the home season, a fact not always reflected in the results.

The West Indians stopped Australia's winning run with a historic run chase in the Antigua Test, but then you can always argue that Steve Waugh's men had taken a winning lead in the series.

It was no mean achievement too, when the Windies notched up three successive wins in the seven-match ODI face-off. However, the Aussies had already clinched the series, jumping to a 4-0 lead.

There was no dearth of opportunities for the Caribbeans in the limited overs series against the Sri Lankans, that preceded the Tests. The West Indians won the last game, after the Lankans had pocketed the first two; both were duels where the home side failed to cash in on the chances after creating the openings.

The short two-match Test series against the Lankans meant much to West Indian cricket. The Caribbeans have an important tour to South Africa coming up in the later half of the year and it was crucial they managed to translate form into positive results.

In other words, the Windies had to win the series, yet that would not be easy against an evenly matched Lankan side, an outfit with considerable experience. Could the young West Indians pull it off?

In the event it was a significant moment for West Indian cricket, when the young guns in the side provided it with a famous series clinching seven-wicket win in the second Test at Jamaica.

A proud Lara had an outstanding time with the willow, registering his fifth Test double hundred, at St. Lucia, and then remaining unbeaten on a match-winning 80, as the West Indians made light of the victory target of 212 at Sabina Park, in what was, till the beginning of the Caribbean second innings a low-scoring encounter.

He appeared a confident man as the West Indians rejoiced at Sabina Park. "At the beginning of the year, I would have said we have South Africa at the end of the year and we would do well to win a Test. Now, I expect us to win the series."

The 34-year-old West Indian captain was pleased that the team was moving in the right direction - "Most importantly, we've worked over the last three months in getting the right combination, character traits, working towards a team that is going to do well long-term, not momentary - you know, here today, gone tomorrow."

It was a different story for the Lankans, who are finding it increasingly difficult to cope with conditions during Test campaigns away from the sub-continent. And the setback at Kingston meant the Sri Lankans had lost their fourth successive campaign abroad since the victory in Pakistan in 2000.

Hashan Tillekeratne, the captain for Tests, made no excuses at the end of it all - "Our batting is very brittle, so we need to improve on that area significantly if we are going to be competitive away from home. Our batsmen didn't play up to potential in the West Indies."

The talent in the West Indian batting was never in question. However, the bowling was a huge problem area. Spearhead Mervyn Dillon had been inconsistent the whole season, while Jermaine Lawson got into problems with his action, a back injury not helping his cause either.

At this stage of his career Vasbert Drakes was at best a support seamer. In a demanding situation, the West Indian selectors boldly opted for youth for the decider at Kingston, Jamaica and the results were there for all to see.

The 19-year old Jerome Taylor had impressed in the final ODI at Antigua, running in smoothly and generating some pace with a high-arm action. And when the 21-year-old Fidel Edwards made his Test debut at Kingston, he had just one first class match behind him.

Edwards, who consistently operated at around 145 kph, returned a five-wicket innings haul on his Test debut, Taylor impressed in parts, and the West Indians may have finally unearthed two pacemen who could serve their cricket long.

Corey Collymore has been around for a while, having made his Test debut in the 1999 series against Australia. However, despite figuring regularly in the ODIs, Collymore, a whole-hearted performer was cold-shouldered by the West Indians for the Tests; a back injury proved a stumbling block as well.

And the 25-year-old Barbadian had a wonderful series, moving the ball around at a brisk pace. His seven for 57 in the West Indian second innings at Kingston was easily the most influential bowling performance of the series, not to forget his five for 66 in the first Test at St. Lucia.

To make his effort more special, Collymore, who finished with match figures of nine for 85 in the second Test, was carrying an ankle injury when he bowled in the Sri Lankan second innings. It was here that a chat with pace bowling great Courtney Walsh boosted his spirits.

"I was struggling (Saturday) afternoon with an injury to my ankle and I came in and didn't know what it would be like on (Sunday). But I called my bowling hero Courtney Walsh and he told me, `just go out and do your best,' and I did just that."

With the rain-affected first Test at St. Lucia drifting into a draw, it was everything to play for, for the two sides in the second Test at the Sabina Park.

The West Indies decided to prepare a pitch that afforded seam movement and bounce, and, in a brave move, picked four pacemen — Collymore, Edwards, Taylor and Drakes — along with off-spinner Omari Banks.

Darren Ganga, who opened the innings along with Chris Gayle at St. Lucia, made way for Edwards, which meant Wavell Hinds, a century-maker in the first Test coming in at No. 3, moved up to the opening slot.

The West Indies were fielding only five specialist batsmen with Omari Banks and wicket-keeper batsman Ridley Jacobs for support. In this instance, fortune favoured the brave.

The Windies inserted the Sri Lankans, who never quite settled in, being bowled out for 208 in the final session of day one. Only the left-handed Kumara Sangakkara (75, 212b, 10x4), a pugnacious customer, offered some resistance as the West Indian pacemen hunted in a pack.

Edwards ended up with five for 36 off 15.4 impressive overs. Collymore and Drakes too were among the wickets, while offie Banks chipped in with two. Soon it was the turn of the West Indian batting to come apart.

Prabhath Nissanka, a tall, well-built paceman, ripped through the line-up, after Gayle and Hinds had raised 54 for the first wicket. Gayle and Sarwan made 31, and Drakes a useful 30 down the order. However, there was little else in the West Indian innings. For once off-spinner Muttiah Muralitharan won his battle with Brian Lara, having the left-hander adjudged leg-before for 10.

Nissanka's five for 64, and fine bowling by Muralitharan (three for 23 off 10 overs) meant the West Indies were shot out for a disappointing 191. Far from conceding a lead, the Lankans were now ahead by 17 runs in the first innings.

It was at this point that the contest was won and lost. The Lankans had a wonderful opportunity to put the match beyond the West Indians but blew the opportunity, with the batsmen failing to apply themselves, an absolute must in Test cricket.

It was meek surrender by the Lankans as they found themselves blown away for 194, Mahela Jayawardene's 32 being the highest score. And it was Collymore who caused most of the damage.

It was his spell from the Blue Mountains end (four for 12 off five overs) with the Lankan score at 129 for five, that conclusively swung the match in favour of the West Indies.

Reflected Collymore on his tremendous performance, "I'm bowling a bit slower than before, but I've been working on swinging the ball and concentrating on line and length and sticking to the basics."

Lara was all praise for Collymore - "I thought he was exceptional, along with Fidel Edwards in the first innings." And there were rousing cheers for Collymore from the 10,000-strong crowd at the Sabina Park.

When the West Indians began the chase, canny left-arm paceman Chaminda Vaas caused an early jolt winning a leg-before decision against Gayle before the southpaw had opened his account and Hinds was just getting into his stride when he was bowled by Muralitharan.

With the Caribbeans 50 for two, the Sri Lankans were still alive in the Test. However, Ramnaresh Sarwan, such a lovely user of his feet, and the gifted Lara got together, and the two in an 161-run third wicket partnership, took the game away from the Windies, in 27.2 overs, with brilliant, attacking batsmanship that left the Lankans stunned. By the time Sarwan (82, 90b, 9x4, 1x6) fell to Vaas, the scores were tied.

And within moments skipper Lara (80 not out, 90b, 9x4, 1x4) was walking back triumphantly; his young West Indian team had shown character by nailing the decisive Test.

In the first Test too, the West Indian captain was at his brilliant best, his strokeful 209 (360b, 24x4, 1x6), serving an indication of the kind of touch he is in. There was a century for Wavell Hinds (113, 143b, 8x4, 4x6) as well; this aggressive left-hander appears to be maturing at the Test level. There was some reward too for Muralitharan (five for 138) even as the West Indians, replying to Sri Lanka's 354, declared on the final day at 477 for nine.

Earlier, after winning the toss, Sri Lanka, was well served by stylish opener Marvan Atapattu, whose 118 (275, 15x4) was yet another pointer to the fact that away from the sub-continent, he is perhaps the best equipped Lankan technically, to counter the conditions. Atapattu drove and flicked with elegance, while there were useful contributions from Sangakkara (56) and Mahela Jayawardene (45). However, the Lankans lost the initiative on day two with Collymore making major inroads into the line-up.

This promising Test could have thrown up a result but for inclement weather. The Lankans finished the match strongly with Atapattu (50 not out) and Jayasuriya (72 not out) raising 126 in 34 overs. However, it was batting that let the side down in the final Test.

Atapattu, Jayasuriya and Tillekeratne failed to deliver when it mattered and the Lankans fell away once again in an away Test campaign. Said Tillekeratne, who had an outstanding home series against the Kiwis with the willow — "Everyone is banking on me to get runs and the team may have struggled as a result. I am presently going through a bad patch. I think I will be able to come out of it."

The Lankan captain pointed out that not too many sides were performing well away from the sub-continent. "Except Australia, and, maybe South Africa, all of the countries have struggled to win outside of their country. I think we need to improve on our skills, and I hope we can win more matches away from Sri Lanka."

A series victory over the West Indies would have taken Sri Lanka to the third place in the ICC Test championships, but in the sunny Sabina Park, in front of a jubilant crowd, it was the Caribbeans who were celebrating.