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So near and yet so far...

MUCH is being made of the fact that the West Indies played out a level series with Australia. There is talk of pride in the ranks that they fought hard and won two Tests in a series in which they expected to be thrashed. This is an illusion and a similar inability to acknowledge reality has led to the decline in fortunes which the team has experienced ever since 1995.

All the old problems were evident during the fourth Test loss to an Australian team which showed its characteristic trait of resilience. The dependence on one man for runs was back again, but this time the law of averages held. The sacrificing of wickets to stupid shots also returned with a vengeance and few, if any, showed an inclination to stay there and fight.

Given the state of mind in which Lara was -- his 153 must have been tremendously exhausting, both physically and mentally -- it was unfair to expect him to score heavily again. He made 100 but did not stick around to nurse the rest of the team as he had done in the first innings in Jamaica and the second in Barbados. Lara has two distinct approaches to an innings -- he often plays these destructive little knocks and this time it was probably intended to demoralise the Australians so that the rest of the West Indies batsmen would have it a bit easier than usual. And it was done solely because he was mentally tired and felt he could not summon up the concentration to stay there for a long time. Remember, that 153 came only last Tuesday.

But his teammates were not equal to the task. A first innings lead of 81 was huge, given that Australia had scored only 303. Then it was the old story of the bowlers not having enough rest to recharge themselves for the second assault on Australia. When Walsh and Ambrose had some rest -- in Jamaica and Barbados -- they came out firing on all cylinders as though they were in the prime of their careers and Perry reaped the rewards. This time, the spirit was willing but the flesh was weak.

One may question Lara's approach in the first innings but then such questioners must also ask whether it is not time for somebody else to score some runs as well. Two good innings in the entire series from each batsman would have more than sufficed. And nobody can cry off, not even the newcomers. If they are good enough to play at this level, then they have to make runs. Gordon Greenidge did not flinch when he made his debut in India; he made 93 and 107. Viv Richards made 192 in his second Test. I can hear people protesting that these were batsmen of a different class, but then folk who make it to Test teams have to learn to adapt to circumstances. Dead-footed agricultural shots have no place in modern Test cricket. The shots which Campbell and Joseph got out to in the second innings were a betrayal of the West Indies cause.

All the old questions remain -- who will take over the mantle from Walsh and Ambrose? Where is Franklyn Rose? Are fast bowlers going to be tried for a match or two and then put on the mantlepiece? Who will open the innings? (This one may have an answer if Griffith shows any of the resilience he did on day five and Campbell goes back to the drawing board to get his technique right). Who will bat at number three? When is the "abundant talent" of Carl Hooper going to shine through -- when he is 45? And when is Jimmy Adams going to stop squaring up the way he does? The man is a bundle of nerves when Lara is not at the other end. Is Lara going to have to play nursemaid to the entire lot? It will only affect his own batting. And finally, when is Lara going to develop the confidence to take McGrath on and throw off the seeming dominance that this bowler has established over him?

For Australia, there were two pluses: one, they showed the ability to take a hard decision and drop Warne. And two, they showed that they have a lot of character. After Jamaica, to come out and win like they did in Antigua is not easy. They were able to stay the course and deserve the Frank Worrell Trophy. They have problems at the top too and unless Blewett can consolidate there, they may have to continue looking.

The one-day series will be a pointer to the World Cup in some way but the real battle is over. Had the West Indies won back the trophy, they would have won one very important tussle with the Aussies -- the mental one. A lot of cricket is played in the head. Toughess does not come overnight and one cannot relax until the last ball is bowled. The West Indies forgot these basics and lost a series which they could well have won. And if they harbour any illusions of triumph it would keep them from facing up to the real problems which lie much deeper. It is not a slip of the tongue that made Mike Holding refer to the West Indies cricketing authorities as the board of no control while he was reading out the names of dignitaries who attended the awards ceremony after the fourth Test. Grassroots problems must be tackled and tackled hard. Else all those glorious deeds in Jamaica and Barbados will be in vain. The humiliation of South Africa was not an overnight happening; this must serve as a warning.