S. Ram Mahesh
Gros Islet: The island of St. Lucia, at first sight, seems to suffer from a crisis of identity. A bloody past comprising 14 alternate regime changes between Britain and France starting in 1659 through to 1814 has left it half French, half British, and Caribbean overall.
The road that curves around hills and leads down to the valley containing the Beausejour Cricket Ground the venue of the second Test between India and West Indies, beginning on Saturday has evidence enough of this cultural mix. Low-terraced tea shops, impressive Victorian-style buildings, vessels berthed in wharfs, houses on stiletto stilts: all have an air of ineffable quaintness to them.
Artists are compelled to greatness in the midst of great beauty or terrible suffering; the 20 men under Rahul Dravid and Brian Lara need look no further than outside their coach window or into a holiday guide for inspiring tales of both beauty and suffering.
Not that either side needs it: if they manage a battle three-quarters as arresting as the first Test, those of the 3000-strong Gros Islet population who make it to the ground will go home well-pleased. For the first Test was a classic, containing all the necessary components. There were multiple and reversible momentum shifts endemic to any great five-day match that left neither team with a discernible edge.
A critical ingredient at Antigua was the excellent track. The playing strip here has tufts of green grass, which according to groundsman Kent Cluft have deep roots that will help bind the surface. Cluft said much of the grass will remain. The surface isn't as hard as the Recreation Ground track was on the first day the lower clay content here explains that.
"There won't be a whole lot of pace and bounce," said Cluft. "But, whatever bounce is there will be consistent. The quicker bowlers will get movement off the wicket because of the grass; the spinners won't get too much sideways turn."
Vacant bowling spot
With Sreesanth's injured heel ruling him out, a bowling spot opens up. The breeze that whistles through the mountains before ruffling the blades of grass at the Beausejour Cricket Ground, and the green-top track will give Irfan Pathan's combination of swing and deviation off turf its best shot.
The success of Virender Sehwag's canny off-spin could cut both ways for Harbhajan Singh's chances: the management might want to further test the West Indies batsmen with quality off-spin; alternately, it might consider the opener's bowling adequate to complement a 3-1 combination. All this of course presupposes that India will play four bowlers and not drop V.R.V. Singh, who impressed in spurts in the first Test.
India's batting in the second innings admittedly when the pitch had eased was excellent. Wasim Jaffer soaked up the pressure of the lead, and the opening partnership set India on course. The captain batting at four has helped. "With Sachin not around, I thought I could bat in the middle order and give Laxman a chance to bat at a position he is comfortable in and has had a lot of success at," said Dravid.
"It puts me among the stroke-makers and brings in the experience." For West Indies, Pedro Collins replaces the injured Fidel Edwards in the thirteen. Lara, in Edwards's absence at Antigua, had to resort to 7-2 fields and restrictive lines outside off to strangle a wicket.
The skipper might draft Jerome Taylor to give himself a semblance of a pace alternative in Edwards's absence. Both Collins and Taylor could play if the home side deems Chris Gayle's flat off-spin a worthy slow-bowling option. Gayle displayed character and admirable maturity with the bat in the second innings; it might well have been his watershed moment.
If his skipper bats like only Brian Lara can, India will need something special to take a 1-0 lead.
The teams (from): India: Rahul Dravid (capt.), Virender Sehwag, Wasim Jaffer, Yuvraj Singh, V.V.S. Laxman, Mohammad Kaif, M.S. Dhoni, Irfan Pathan, Harbhajan Singh, Anil Kumble, Munaf Patel, Suresh Raina, Ramesh Powar, V.R.V. Singh, Dinesh Kaarthick.
West Indies: Brian Lara (capt.), Chris Gayle, Daren Ganga, Ramnaresh Sarwan, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Runako Morton, Dwayne Bravo, Denesh Ramdin (wk), Ian Bradshaw, Jerome Taylor, Corey Colleymore, Pedro Collins, Dave Mohammed.
Umpires: Simon Taufel (Australia) and Asad Rauf (Pakistan)
Third umpire: Steve Bucknor
Match referee: Jeff Crowe
Hours of play (IST): 7.30 p.m. to 9.30 p.m., 10.10 p.m. to 12.10 a.m., and 12.30 a.m. till close.