IN FOCUS – Winner-takes-all in Barbados, but will the crowds turn up?

  New Zealand and the West Indies have traded punches and now the stage is set for the third and final Test, starting later today at the Kensington Oval in Bridgetown. Thankfully this is not a two-Test series like New Zealand’s last tour to the Caribbean in 2012, and the real benefit of having a three-Test series – that of looking forward to a rubber-deciding match – is evident.

  It would be fair to say that the West Indies have the momentum with them after their thumping ten-wicket win at Port-of-Spain. The hosts will be aware that a series victory is the only way by which they can give any indication of improvement after a forgettable 2013-14 season. The changes made after the first Test showed that the talent is there in the Caribbean, but the key is proper selection. Kraigg Brathwaite – who I thought could be in for the long run after watching his gritty batting on the 2011-12 India tour – finally scored a much-deserved century to lay the platform for a good first-innings lead. His 129 must have calmed the tension of those who thought that the West Indian top order is becoming a hopeless case. Similarly, young debutant Jermaine Blackwood scored a vital half-century on debut, which augurs well for the team, who almost always bank on the great Shivnarine Chanderpaul to bail them out.

zx4-TAYLOR-1   West Indian fast bowler Jerome Taylor celebrates a wicket with his captain Denesh Ramdin during the second Test against New Zealand at Kingston (source – antiguaobserver.com)

  Also, the hosts’ bowling resources have been bolstered by the comebacks of Kemar Roach and Jerome Taylor, both of whom played major roles in the Port-of-Spain win. Shannon Gabriel too looked much more comfortable than he was in India and New Zealand last season, while the hard-working Suleiman Benn bowled nearly a fifth of the total overs in the match. It was a total team performance – each batsman looked willing to put a price on their wicket, and the bowlers kept up the pressure throughout.

  Indeed, what settled the result eventually was the splendid bowling performance on the first day, especially by Taylor, as the Kiwi batsmen, so assured of themselves in the first Test at Kingston, collapsed quickly in the last session. Besides the selectors and the Windies fans, Chanderpaul – who often fails to get support from his team-mates – too must have been glad to note the performance. And to finish it off, Chris Gayle gave enough optimism during his 46-ball 80 in the chase that he is getting close to his marauding best.

  However this is not to say that the New Zealand challenge has faded. Earlier this year we saw how South Africa convincingly won the second Test of their home series against Australia only to lose the final Test and surrender the series. Which means that in Test cricket, fortunes can swing from one match to another and New Zealand are entirely capable of turning the tables just like the West Indies did after their 186-run defeat in the opening Test at Kingston.

  They will look to rectify their poor batting which let them down on the first day and gain inspiration from the doughty ninth-wicket stand between Bradley-John Watling and Mark Craig which prevented a near-certain innings defeat. Now that Neil Wagner has come in for Ish Sodhi, one can expect a battle of the pace trios in Barbados. In fact, Windies coach Ottis Gibson has called for the Kensington Oval pitch to be a bit more helpful to the fast bowlers. The opening spot remains a concern for the visitors, and one should not be surprised if skipper Brendon McCullum comes out to open with Tom Latham. New Zealand will be no doubt looking to continue from their impressive home summer and aim for their first away series win against a top-eight nation since 2002, which has been the only time they have won in the West Indies.

  In the first two Tests we saw some very good individual performances from Williamson, Latham, Tim Southee and Craig for New Zealand and from Brathwaite, Darren Bravo, Taylor and Roach for the West Indies. The series itself has been hard-fought, with both sides getting a chance to come out on top. One would have expected at least a decent bit of support for the West Indies during their Port-of-Spain victory – a match they dominated throughout – but sadly Trinidad folk stayed away from the Queens Park Oval in droves.

zno_show-450x350     Empty stands during the 2010 West Indies-South Africa Test at Bridgetown, venue for the upcoming Test against New Zealand (source – nationnews.com)

  After a long time the West Indies displayed a true team performance. Moreover, Trinidadian Denesh Ramdin was leading the team for the first time at his home ground and another Trinidadian, Darren Bravo, scored his first hundred in the Caribbean. But all this was apparently not enough to convince the locals to come and watch the Test match. There were perhaps a few hundred spectators on each day of the Test, most of them being long-time Test cricket watchers.

  The younger generation were gravely missing in attendance, which is probably not surprising, as most of them are attracted to T20 cricket – for sure the CPL will see near-full houses – and the IPL, which features most of the West Indian limited-overs stars in action. Others have taken to American sports like basketball. And while the football World Cup may have been a distraction, it was still no reason for the near-empty stands at a ground which even until a decade back, would have been filled with eager spectators, calypso instruments in hand. Even in the first Test at Kingston, the better-than-usual turnout was only due to the fact that it was local boy Gayle’s hundredth Test.

  There used to be a real buzz in the stadiums when the West Indies were involved in a gripping Test. Unfortunately, not anymore. West Indies director of cricket Richard Pybus may have stressed on the overhaul of the first-class structure and the importance of Test cricket for the West Indies, and the younger players themselves – the likes of Bravo and Brathwaite in particular – know that Test cricket is where a career is made and a reputation is built. But how does one convince the public to come back to watching Tests? It is something which the West Indies Cricket Board seriously needs to figure out soon. Maybe they can start with some effective marketing of the matches and better pricing of tickets.

  There is every possibility of a result at Bridgetown, as the pitch there seems to be more sporting than most of the other grounds in the Caribbean. I am really looking forward to an interesting do-or-die battle between two evenly-matched teams, and I feel we have got a good five days in store. Hopefully, the Barbadian public share the same sentiment.

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