By rights the current series between Australia and the West Indies should be already over. Most naturally expected that the latter would again be desperately scrabbling to stave off the ignominy of conceding the first ever whitewash in the Caribbean. Yet things have not entirely panned out according to the script. But for a nervous first hour on the final day at Sabina Park, the home side could well be coming to Barbados defending a 1-0 lead in the rubber and with the prospect of regaining the Frank Worrell trophy. That opportunity may have slipped by, but if the men from the Caribbean could salvage a series draw with a last test victory it would represent a remarkable achievement. Peter English of Cricinfo has suggested that they might struggle to motivate themselves now that Sir Frank is out of reach, but for a side that hasn’t won a major test series in a long time a tied rubber must seem a more than adequate prize.
The statistical gulf between the two sides remains damning. Three of the West Indian top order fail to average even thirty runs per dismissal, whilst not one of the bowlers can boast of an average below 35. The world champions by contrast field a batting line-up in which all average above forty barring Simon Katich, who scored a hundred in the second test. Furthermore their new ball partnership of Stuart Clark and Brett Lee have bowling averages of 21 and 29 respectively. What the numbers fail to show is that these are two sides in varying states of flux.
Australia are in the process of rebuilding their side after the departures of long-time stalwarts Warne, McGrath, Langer and most recently Gilchrist and have without doubt lost the aura of indomitability that has characterised the side for the past decade. Though players such as Haddin, Hodge and Johnson all have fine first-class pedigree, they remain unproven at the highest level and are still on trial as it were with all the added pressure that inevitably brings. If ever the time was ripe for a spot of giant killing it is now. Whether the home team is up to taking this chance or not is another matter.
With the probable return of West Indies duo Chris Gayle and Sewnarine Chattergoon, a frail looking opening partnership all of a sudden looks at least a little bolstered. Devon Smith has already been axed, and either Runako Morton or Xavier Marshall are likely to suffer the chop also. Poor starts have put the home side behind the eight ball in each of the opening two tests and if the new look top can at least take the shine off the new ball and the fire out of Brett Lee before exposing the middle order anchors Sarwan and Chanderpaul, then a competitive first innings total is on the cards.
News coming out of Barbados suggests that the Kensington pitch should be hard and fast, and if that turns out to be the case Fidel Edwards and Jerome Taylor should enjoy themselves more than they did in Antigua. Edwards’ performances in the home series’ against Sri Lanka and thus far against Australia have been most impressive. Always possessing the ability to bowl the odd unplayable ball but cursed with crippling inconsistency, the discipline he has added to his game this year has been encouraging. For his side to be in with a chance in squaring the series he will need to maintain this newfound command over line and length in Barbados. Edwards can expect to rely upon solid support from Taylor and Bravo, but the fourth bowling option remains more problematic: Powell has again flattered to deceive in this series and has shown that currently he is not up to the rigours of five day cricket. His all too frequent erratic spells are a liability in a side that has started to become competitive through discipline and control. However, considering the long-standing reluctance of the West Indian selection panel to choose a spinner, Sulieman Benn is unlikely to be given another opportunity. The third possibility is the young and untried pacer Kemar Roach who has been drafted into the squad for the final test. With only seven first-class wickets to his name it would be an enormous gamble to throw him to Ponting, Clarke, Symonds et al at this stage in his career, but one that might just be worth taking.
Australia too have made an interesting selection and are set to give a debut cap to left arm wrist spinner Beau Casson after the surprise retirement of Stuart MacGill midway through the second test. The move appears to be something of a punt on the part of the selectors when one recalls that Casson’s domestic bowling average hovers at a distinctly unimpressive 40.36. No doubt the selectors are hoping he can fulfil the role of mystery spinner, but if he fails to impress Australia are facing the prospect of an immediate future without a genuine spinning option to provide variety in their attack.
Are the lines of the cricketing map once again being redrawn? Of course only time will tell, but it is difficult to imagine Australia dominating the game to the extent they have done for the foreseeable future. This game is a hugely important acid test for Australia and one which they badly need to pass with flying colours. If they do, the world champions will have once again silenced their critics and re-established their pre-eminent authority. If they do not, the cricketing world may soon be querying whether or not the emperor is wearing any clothes.