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The unknown factor

AUSTRALIA go into another series against the West Indies from today (Nov 23) and to all appearances it should be a cakewalk with the Australians not even having to breathe hard to win with ease. Given recent showings by either team, this is the only conclusion that one can come to but there is one factor that makes the Australians a wee bit uncertain.

This stems from the last visit Australia made to the Caribbean, a visit during which they were expected to steamroll the West Indies who had just returned from a 5-0 thrashing at the hands of the South Africans. The four-Test series of 1999 seemed destined to end 4-0 in Australia's favour and this impression was strengthened after the first Test saw the West Indies being bowled out for 51 in their second innings.

But thereafter, a bit of the mongrel reasserted itself in the West Indian camp. Brian Lara was the leader of the pack in more ways than one but he was helped by Jimmy Adams, Sherwin Campbell, Ridley Jacobs, Courtney Walsh and Curtley Ambrose. Of course, it was Lara who did the initial work with a marvellous knock of 213. The series ended 2-2 but the West Indies could well have won it.

And it is that very factor which the Australians fear. Going by what the West Indies have achieved on the tour so far - or rather not achieved - one would expect a 5-0 hammering, similar to what Greg Chappell's team handed to Clive Lloyd's outfit in 1975-76. But if Steve Waugh does not want to commit himself, then it is just because of one man - Lara. He can win a Test off his own bat, he has tilted at least three Tests between the two sides decisively the West Indies' way, and Waugh fears that there may be a couple of repeats. If nothing else, Lara has a personal account to settle.

The celebrations to mark the first tied Test, which have been going on in Brisbane, have served to highlight two things - one, the degree of camaraderie that existed between the teams of that era and two, the extent to which teams hate each other in this day and age. No better example can be offered than the statements of Glenn McGrath that his battle to get the better of Lara is a personal one. And all because Lara reported him for spitting at Adrian Griffith during the series in the Caribbean. Contrast that with the statement of Alan Davidson, that whenever he meets Wesley Hall, they do not shake hands; no, they give each other a warm embrace. That encapsulates the difference between the cricket of that era and the game as it is played today.

How is this relevant here? It is, because if anything makes the West Indies fight before they go down, it will be personal feelings, not the spirit of the game. That is long dead. There is personal glory at stake, reputations, statements made which have to be defended, and just plain old one-upmanship. A battle between a class batsman and a good bowler is fascinating to watch but when the only thing that drives it is personal animosity, then it is a poor substitute for the real thing.

Hall bowled with much venom and fervour against the Australians in 1960-61 but when he hit anyone, he was the first to go running up to the batsman and lift him up. He was not doing it out of personal feeling but using the bouncer as a legitimate weapon of a fast bowler. Contrast that with the way bowlers use the bouncer today. That kind of use will be much in evidence in the series which kicks off in Brisbane today.

The last summer in Australia saw such a spate of one-sided Test matches that interest has fallen. Traditionally, the West Indies are an exciting bunch who come up with one or two standout performances to enthuse the crowds. Australians will be hoping as much but the form and reputation of the visitors does not inspire confidence. The connoisseur wants a good game, no matter which way it goes; the fanatic wants a win for his team after a good contest. But nobody likes a one-sided series, not even the most rabid supporter on either side.

So where does that leave us? Will we have a good summer or a bad one? All said and done, I have no doubt about the way it will pan out. Australia will win the Test series easily and I would be extremely surprised if any of the Tests goes beyond the fourth day. At best, the Windies will manage, just about, to draw one Test. The only consolation will be that Walsh will reach the magical 500 figure.