England's chances of making a fight of it in the West Indies have greatly improved after their series-levelling victory in the third Test. It may be too much to hope that the team will do what Colin Cowdrey's team did in 1968 -- thanks to Gary Sobers's declaration -- but the England win at Trinidad has done one thing -- it has made this battle one between equals.
The individuals who have fashioned victory for their teams can be counted on one's fingers. Angus Fraser, Dean Headley, Alec Stewart and Mike Atherton for England; Carl Hooper, Curtley Ambrose and David Williams for the West Indies. Fraser, Ambrose and Stewart are the three who have been consistent. Fraser, at least, has had occasional support from his fellow pacemen; Ambrose has been playing a lone hand.
Generally speaking, the batting has been poor and the bowlers have been called on to haul their respective teams out of trouble. They have generally obliged but one cannot see this happening too much longer. This has been a hallmark of West Indies teams in recent years; they have hardly anything to bowl at but quite often manage to contain the opposition and win the day. The batting has been brittle for a long time and is looking even more so now.
Gone are the days when the West Indies regularly posted 350-plus scores in Tests, the days when there was at least one batsman who would put his head down and graft when all around him were falling. The West Indies play like millionaires these days and that when they are nearly bankrupt. And the selectors seem unwilling to test out new talent; the same old faces are being recycled. Typical of their attitude is the way Phil Simmons pops up every two years or so to tour with the team.
Sobers commented last year that the West Indies have not won a match since 1991; other teams have lost to them. He pointed to the fact that on one occasion a target of even 136 was defended; it may be recalled that India were bowled out for 81 when chasing 120. In other words, the bowlers have been carrying the load far too long. The second Test of the present series is one of the few exceptions to date. Else, the victory targets set for the batsmen to get have been small; they won in Melbourne in 1996 but had to get only 87 in the fourth innings.
England thus have their best chance for a long time of a good chance of coming out equals in this series. As long as the main bowlers in the West Indies team continue to have an average age above 30 and new bowlers are not blooded and persisted with, the team will continue to perform erratically. England have to get rid of a few cobwebs in the brain and play to their strengths.
The one thing that can get in the way of England's hopes will be a resurgence of Brian Lara. He has shown glimpses of his brilliance in his four innings to date but big scores have yet to come. Fraser, however, has given the West Indies captain something to hink about, the same way McGrath did during the 1996-97 series. But with better wickets promised for the remaining three Tests, this series may yet prove to be one where the batsmen have the better of the exchanges.