So close, yet so far By Tony Cozier
Stabroek News
April 28, 2002

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SO near and yet so far but, given the history of the ground, the present psychological state of the team and a tail that now starts with the wicket- keeper at No.7, it was misplaced optimism to expect the West Indies to achieve their victory target in the second Test last week.

Only one team has ever managed over 300 to win in the peculiar conditions at the Queen’s Park Oval and India’s record 406 for four in 1976 was against West Indies bowling based almost entirely on three limited and inexperienced spinners - Raphick Jumadeen in his fifth Test, Albert Padmore in his first of two and Imtiaz Ali in his one and only.

Since then, the team batting last has invariably faltered.

Needing 334 against Australia in 1973, the West Indies were seemingly home and dry at 268 for five at lunch only to collapse to 289 all out.

The following year against England, even 225 proved beyond a West Indies batting order that read Fredericks, Rowe, Kallicharran, Lloyd, Sobers, Kanhai and Deryck Murray that could only raise 199.

A year ago, expectations were just as high as they were last Tuesday when the West Indies set out on the last day needing 199 with nine wickets left to defeat South Africa. They finished 69 short.

And, in the past eight years, there have been last innings totals of 46, 51 and 63.

Only in the two, back-to-back Tests in 1998 did the team manage to get a challenging target in the last innings - but only after a titanic struggle and plenty of luck.

Hooper’s unbeaten 94 and his sixth wicket stand of 129 with the little wicket-keeper David Williams pushed the West Indies to 282 and victory by three wickets, England scraped 225 from 108 overs in the next Test to win by the same narrow margin.

With Lara and Hooper in and another 182 required on Tuesday morning, the mission wasn’t impossible. But Lara’s obvious and rare tension, openly reflected in his gesture to quieten the Trini Posse before facing a ball, and Hooper’s “sleepless night” were symptoms of the stress within a team shorn of its self-belief.

Further evidence followed in the daft run out of Junior Murray who has had an unfortunate return to Test cricket.

While the West Indies lost their focus, the Indians kept theirs.

The admirable Javagal Srinath set the agenda for his team within his first two overs in which Hooper had to stoutly defend every single ball. It took 14 deliveries to eek out the first run. Nothing was given for Lara and Hooper to relieve their anxiety.

None of the five catches was especially difficult but all were safely taken and the run out was efficiently executed. In a similar tight corner in 1998, England dropped Williams twice in his match-winning stand with Hooper.

The West Indies did not lose the match as much on the last day as the first when, after the benefit of the toss, India compiled 262 for four. They were always playing catch-up after that.

The breaks didn’t go their way on the opening day but they did nothing to help themselves.

Sachin Tendulkar might have been - should have been - given out at 6 and 30 as he proceeded to his hundred and Lara might have - should have - caught V.V.S.Laxman off the second new ball late in the day.

But Merv Dillon, whose inconsistency as the leader of the attack has been the most disturbing let-down for the West Indies, and Cameron Cuffy absolutely wasted the new ball when the pitch was at its most helpful.

These are two moderate, evenly balanced teams whose strengths in middle order batting are counterbalanced by their glaring deficiencies at the top and bottom and in their unpenetrative bowling.

As emotionally down as they might be, the remaining three Tests are at venues where the West Indies are far more comfortable - and, conversely, India far less so - than at Queen’s Park.

The West Indies have won 10 of the 18 Tests between the teams at Kensington, the ARG and Sabina - six out seven Tests at Kensington.

The pitches, hopefully quicker and bouncier that either at Queen’s Park or Bourda, should suit them. But, if they are to get their groove back, they have to shake off the apprehension that gripped them last Tuesday in Port-of-Spain and start believing in themselves.

The well-established irrationality of West Indies selectors received another substantial boost on Friday.

From the moment they unnecessarily picked 12 players for the Busta XI to take on the Indians at the impressive new St.Lucia stadium, it was clear there would be disappointment for the final odd man out. Why they couldn’t have named a straight eleven and relied on St.Lucians as substitutes is not apparent. So, come Friday morning, Tino Best, the 20-year-old Barbadian fast bowler, learned that he would be omitted.

Even if it would have been revealing to see how the Indians went against Best’s genuine pace and aggression, someone had to go. But Best had fair reason to expect it wouldn’t be him.

He had planned to set off for a professional league contract in England before he was advised by the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) to delay his departure specifically to be in St.Lucia.

As it turned out, he wasn’t needed at all and could have in England doing his stuff for his new club in the Birmingham league.

It was just the latest conundrum from those who run West Indies cricket. It won’t be long before there is another.