THREE Tests begun on Boxing Day have all yielded results. Two were similar in that the players seemed to be contesting something. There were plenty of thrilling moments both in Melbourne, where England pulled off a shock 12-run win over Australia, and in Auckland where New Zealanders Cairns and McMillan did not let their nerve run away despite being adversely placed against India.
The third, where motivation was expected to be at a fever pitch, ended in a farce. In what is rapidly becoming a sick joke as far as the paying public go, South Africa once again hammered the West Indies, this time by nine wickets. The tour which was supposed to inspire blacks in South Africa to take to the game may well end in convincing them that they would be better off in a dozen other professions rather than make fools of themselves this way.
In England's case, one can very definitely argue about lack of motivation. They had already seen their hopes of regaining the Ashes evaporate when Australia took a 2-0 lead in Perth after three Tests in the five-match series. In the first innings, just when they seemed likely to take a first innings lead, along came MacGill, a tailender, to dent their confidence further.
There were further setbacks. Atherton bagged a pair and though three half-centuries came in their second innings, the target seemed hardly adequate, even more so when Australia reached 140, eighty percent of the victory target, with six wickets in hand.
The rest is known. Headley came up trumps. The Aussies were casual (something akin to the West Indies in the World Cup final of 1983; they were cocky even when they were 126 for seven with Marshall and Dujon at the crease) and as each one fell, the sense of panic grew. Finally, they fell in a dungheap. All England did was to exploit one little thing -- the fact that Australia have not had the best of records in chasing small targets. A little intelligence paid dividends.
New Zealand displayed guts aplenty too. They fought tooth and nail to gain a worthwhile first innings lead and when India came back to post a worthwhile second innings score, the Kiwis did not throw in the towel despite losing half the team for just 82 when chasing 213. They also had an injured Nathan Astle in their ranks.
Rather than capitulate, they took on the Indians with gusto. Cairns used the long handle well. McMillan played a steady second fiddle. Fittingly, Nash, one of the heroes of the first innings, was there when the four-wicket victory was sealed. Here again, the vital fact that India generally wilt when the pressure is turned back on them, no matter what the situation, was used to advantage; had the Kiwis tried to get the runs by watchful play, they would have landed on the same dungheap as Australia and by at least five times the margin.
And so, on to Natal. Here, the West Indies had everything to play for -- they had a chance of at least earning a draw in order that they could get charged up a bit and aim for victory in the last two Tests. And there were sufficient assurances from a man who should know the wicket well, coach Marshall, that it would hold few terrors for batting. But then this kind of advice was a case of casting pearls before swine.
They batted like jokers again. Lara made 51 but appeared likely to get out all through his innings. When the Proteas went in, bad captaincy helped them at a crucial moment; Rose was on a roll and took the first three wickets but was not called on at the point (140 for four) when Rhodes came in to join Cullinan, the last pair of recognised batsmen. Rose had to be given a break after lunch as he had bowled for most of the morning but when Cronje fell at 140, Lara ought to have called on the form bowler rather than an off-colour Ambrose or Lewis who could not spin the ball at all. Walsh was off-colour too and only Rose seemed to be posing some danger.
But (and this despite all the complaints about support bowlers not playing their part in earlier Tests), Rose was brought on only much later -- after he ran out Cullinan. By then Rhodes was well set. Whatever opportunity of breaking through existed had been thrown away. Jonty set about establishing his credentials as a batsman and the rest is known too well to relate.
Both Lara and Chanderpaul played like millionaires at the wrong time in the second innings; having held on till tea, when the battle was half-won, they tried to be flamboyant. The bottom fell out of the innings and the Greek tragedy was completed when Walsh was stretchered off in the second innings after bowling four overs.
And overall, the West Indies appeared to have little idea of the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents despite having played them twice. South Africa have plenty of data on each and every player from the Caribbean. Their fielding was superb and that was a major difference; Lara's team may soon approach the record of the 1968-69 squad which dropped 34 catches during a five-Test series in Australia.
To the West Indies, the supreme irony of the day must have been the fact that England's victory was masterminded by the grandson of the man who first made people take them seriously as a cricketing force -- the black Bradman, George Headley. As to why he is playing for England is a question which only they can answer. It is a complex thing. They will soon have to face the very real possibility that if they continue playing this way, more defeats by the likes of Kenya are just around the corner.