IT was the type of contest that was a metaphor for the fascinating unpredictability of the two teams.
At constantly changing points of their opening match in the Champions Trophy at the Oval on Friday, the West Indies and Pakistan each had the game won, then lost, then won again, then lost again.
In the end, the West Indies prevailed, barely, by two wickets with the No.8, Denesh Ramdin, and the No.10, Kemar Roach, at the wicket, scraping together the last seven runs to carry them to their misleadingly modest requirement of 171 in the 41st over.
Through the pulsating finale, the cacophony from the stands, packed to their 22,000 capacity, was deafening. The majority was once West Indian hailing the triumphant teams of Worrell, Sobers and Lloyd; there were still easily identifiable yet scattered pockets but the predominant support this time was Pakistani, waving their green and white colours and blowing their horns.
Once Dwayne Bravo was seventh out for 19 at 143 for seven, leaving Ramdin and the bowlers to finish the job, television images revealed the understandable tension of the new captain in his first major match in the post. Aggressive and proactive, he had created an immediate impression, now the outcome was in the balance.
His relief at the end was obvious. In such a short tournament, with the two top teams from each group of four to advance to the semi-final, the opener was vital.
Ironically, the fight that was required to clinch it would be a vital boost to confidence for the two remaining in the qualifying round. The West Indies have not regularly come through on the right side of such tough situations of late. They now know that they can.
The next encounters are against India, who looked awesome in warm-up matches against Sri Lanka and Australia and in their victory over South Africa in their first match proper, at the Oval on Tuesday; injury-weakened South Africa follow at Cardiff on Friday. Victory in either would be a ticket to the semi-final.
Friday’s was officially a 50-overs-an-innings game; in effect, it was anything but.
Instead of batsmen, emboldened by the daring created by Twenty20 cricket and the further encouraging changes to the power-play restrictions, peppering the boundaries and the spectators beyond it with their beefy bats on flat pitches, they were fighting for survival against formidable fast, and even medium-fast, bowling on a bouncy surface.
There were more bouncers than at a rowdy disco, more edges than in a case of cutlasses. After Kemar Roach, whose opening salvo of three wickets in six overs for seven runs left Pakistan in tatters at 15 for three, even the new captain had the ball flying head high.
Pakistan’s all-out 170 was built around captain Misbah-ul-Haq’s skillfully compiled, unbeaten 96 and his restorative fourth wicket partnership of 90 with the fluent left-hander Nasir Jamshed, whomade 50. Everyone else couldn’t get into double-figures.
The total would have been appreciably less had wicket-keeper Ramdin’s catch off Roach before Misbah had scored not been overruled by the third umpire, Tony Hill, on referral from square-leg umpire Nigel Llong.
The verdict was that Ramdin dropped the ball before he had control of it; convinced that he did, Ramdin appealed and celebrated the dismissal. He was charged by the ICC yesterday with “conduct that is contrary to the spirit of the game”, in other words cheating. Ramdin, supported by his captain, has pleaded not guilty. The ICC’s hearing will be in London on tomorrow.
Predictably, Ramdin came in for widespread criticism on radio and tv and in yesterday’s press. The censure was a bit rich coming from Alec Stewart, the former England player, who claimed and was given a catch off Shivnarine Chanderpaul in the Barbados Test of 1990 that bounced a foot or more in front of him at second slip.
When it came the West Indies’ turn to go after what appeared to those who have not followed them in recent years a straightforward target, Pakistan presented Mohammed Irfan, Junaid Khan and Wahab Ruez, a trio of potential left-arm heirs to the great Wasim Akram.
Irfan, at just over seven feet, is the tallest international cricketer ever. Not only that but he’s 90 miles an hour rapid. Junaid and Riaz are in the same vicinity.
As honestly as Ravi Rampaul bowled, Roach had no such testing backups.
Irfan swiftly accounted for Johnson Charles and Darren Bravo, the latter with a ripping ball that climbed steeply from his skyscraper delivery to find the edge on the way to the `keeper.
Neither lasted long enough to be further tested.
The tastiest treat of the day was the duel between Irfan and Chris Gayle; the most pleasing batting was Kieron Pollard’s self-sacrifice for a vital 30 off 58 balls at No.6.
For once, Gayle was rattled by the elongated Pakistanis pacer. He pushed and prodded tentatively as balls flew past until finally deciding to respond in the way he knows best.
He hosted the giant for a straight six from one of the rare offerings “in the slot”, as the contemporary jargon has it, from the last ball of one over. The first two of his next over went for fours, the first from an inside edge through Gayle’s legs.
The storm had passed as Gayle and the elegant, unflustered Marlon Samuels added 63 from 12.4 overs. It was the gentle breeze of Saeed Ajmal’s off-breaks and doosras and the off-spin of Mohammed Hafeez that accounted for both, Gayle missing his slog at Ajmal’s doosra, Samuels running past Hafeez’s arm ball.
The pattern was the same in the Pakistan innings. As Jamshed and Misbaq were ensuring safety, the West Indies’ own man of mystery, Sunil Narine, stepped it to send back Jamshed and Shoaib Malik in his first over of a new spell, Kamran Akmal in his second so that 105 for three became 110 for six.
In between, the removal of Gayle and Samuels, Irfan served up the same wicked lifter to Ramnaresh Sarwan that had dispatched the younger Bravo, with the same result.
At 94 for five, there was little difference at the corresponding stages. It was anyone’s match – and so it remained until Roach, fittingly as Man of the Match, drove Junaid to the cover boundary.
Without Pollard’s discipline, the West Indies would hardly have got there. The Twenty20 six-hitting machine recognized that this was no IPL slog fest. It called, instead, for care and attention.
He spent 18 balls over his first runs, had his anxious moments but, along with a steadying stand of 44 with the captain, carried the West Indies to within smelling distance of the win.
They can be certain of one thing for the rest of their campaign. They won’t again be up against opponents so much like themselves.