S. Ram Mahesh
England bowlers flounder
Bridgetown: Brian Lara had to wait nearly 24 overs before making his way onto the Kensington Oval in his 299th ODI, his last.
Chris Gayle, who had thrashed his way to 79 off 58 balls (10x4, 3x6), hugged Lara at the boundary line. England's players formed a guard of honour, which Lara walked through before shaking Devon Smith by the hand.
He surged into position to play Andrew Flintoff down. The din, as Frank Keating once wrote, assailed the ear.
In 28 overs, the West Indies reached 156 for one. Smith had reached his half-century, a patient effort that had its moments of absolute stillness. But, it might prove to be the innings that turns Smith's career around. Gayle's bombast had allowed Smith his time. He was on 55.
Lara, having opened his account by playing Flintoff to leg, almost nicked James Anderson behind. But, his dramatic suspension of bat was in evidence. A square-drive for the ages was among his 8.
Saturday had a magical feel about it. The air crackled, and had an elf apparated before the eye, it wouldn't have drawn surprise.
"Buy your match programmes ... Brian Lara's last match," wailed the kid at Pickwick Gap, leading to the Kensington Oval. British tourists in the welling crowd were told by a church minister that they needn't bother going in; they'd lose.
Inside the Oval, one imagined Sir Garfield Sobers's statue wrist-snap cover drive in pullovers gleamed a flash more than usual.
The frisking at security was prefaced with, "In for Lara's last?" and concluded with, "You're lucky, you know that." Michael Vaughan did the trumpeters and conch-blowers a favour by electing to field. Lara said at the toss: "Next Saturday would've been better. I've had a really wonderful time playing cricket, and it's a fitting place to end my career in the Caribbean." All was in waiting: if the West Indies openers played to form, Lara would be at the crease in no time. But, Chris Gayle put the horrors behind him in an exhibition of power-hitting that was plain scary.
Such was his dominance that the first 12 overs were bowled by six different bowlers, each brought on with hope more than purpose by Vaughan.
Gayle's methods are based on an exceptional eye that picks length early. His feet do little more than supply a wide, rigid base for his upper body to power through. But, the trouble with batsmen who rely predominantly on hand-eye co-ordination is that a trough forces them to confront their beliefs. Often instinct is compromised by shilly-shallying with technical adjustments.
Gayle trusted his eye on Saturday. He watched as his partner Devon Smith squeezed a square-drive for four. Convinced of the trueness of the track, Gayle clipped James Anderson for his boundary: the angle was played well.
Then, with little forewarning, Gayle picked Liam Plunkett up over wide long-on for six. Stuart Broad - with Plunkett and off-spinner Jamie Dalrymple, one of three changes in the England eleven - was hit with a horizontal bat over cover.
The eighth over, Plunkett's, brought 22 runs. Gayle smote one through the line: just as well there were no fingers in the way, for they would have been mangled. Plunkett followed with a bouncer. Gayle, who had backed away, swayed from the line, and in attempting to leave it, fanned it over the slips for four.
The deliveries so far hadn't been spectacularly bad. Some offered width, others leeway in length; few deserved the condemnation coming their way. Gayle struck Plunkett for two consecutive sixes. The swings were beautifully primitive: the first went over extra cover and onto the steps of the Garfield Sobers Pavilion; the second bounced around in the Worrell, Weekes, and Walcott stand above the sightscreen.
Vaughan delayed Power Play two with the West Indies at 68 for no loss in ten. Twelve came off Dalrymple's first over courtesy a cut from Gayle and a back-cut from Smith. But in the next 11 overs, largely through Vaughan's flighted off-spin and Paul Collingwood's undistinguished medium-pace, England kept the West Indies down to 43.
With the West Indies at 123 for no loss in 22, Vaughan enforced Power Play two. Gayle helped himself to a boundary before being caught superbly at third-man by Broad diving forward. Enter Lara.
West Indies: C. Gayle c Broadb Flintoff 79, D. Smith c Collingwoodb Flintoff 61, B. Lara (runout) 18, M. Samuels c Collingwoodb Vaughan 51, R. Sarwan cNixon b Plunkett 3, S. Chanderpaulc Plunkett b Collingwood 34,D. Bravo c Dalrymple b Vaughan13, D. Ramdin (not out) 10, J. Taylorc Dalrymple b Vaughan 12, D.Powell (run out) 0, C. Collymore(run out) 1, Extras (lb-1, nb-3,w-14) 18; Total (in 49.5 overs)300.
Fall of wickets: 1-131, 2-168,3-173, 4-181, 5-258, 6-276, 7-277, 8-296, 9-298.
England bowling: Anderson6-0-39-0, Plunkett 7-0-71-1,Broad 6-1-32-0, Flintoff 9.5-0-59-2, Dalrymple 3-0-19-0, Collingwood8-0-40-1, Vaughan 10-0-39-3.