Of late, there’s been a lot of talk regarding whether the West Indies can recreate their glory days. Surely, the average Caribbean fan has a take on it. You have a take on it. And so does the great Curtly Ambrose. But whether or not the team reaches its past glories is something no pundit or soothsayer can say with absolute affirmation. But what one can say- and in no uncertain terms- is that the West Indies have, even today, a world record that is nothing short of glorious.
Something none can take away from a team that excites and even disappoints in equal measure.
Eighteen years back, when the West Indies chased 418, which even to this day happens to be the highest-successful fourth inning run chase, they didn’t just beat Australia; they scaled a mountain hitherto considered unscalable. And beat their critics for whom their Test performances were deplorable, to whom the team often seemed like a bug to be crushed in the press.
And in the process of moving a mountain that was Australian cricket – David defeated Goliath.
But over a decade and a half back in time, when the West Indies chased 418, times were different.
A 300-plus total, something that teams achieve in today’s high-octane Tests on Day 1 was considerably lanky.
To score 400 was considered excellent, something that often happens nowadays out of habit even on turning subcontinental pitches.
But to chase down 418 in the final inning of a Test on those Caribbean pitches that were fast and bouncy, where lions like Lee, Ambrose, Walsh and McGrath loomed large was unheard of.
Like hiking the Swiss Alps barefooted.
Even more so when the great Brian Charles Lara had been dislodged from the crease when it most mattered.
But like with very exciting climax, it’s often the great buildup that keeps the reader engrossed in the final chapter.
And in typical wham-bam Australian fashion, the visitors back in 2003 wasted no time whatsoever in penning a glorious start to an otherwise memorable Caribbean tour whose ending was perhaps not in their control.
It was almost as if a West Indian had snatched the pen to write his own history in an Australian notebook.
In typical authoritative fashion, Australia blanked out the hosts in the opening Test at Guyana by 9 wickets. This is despite when there were three West Indians who fired centuries, including Chanderpaul’s 100 off 72. But Langer, Ponting, and Gilly were in top form.
What followed next was a Ponting masterclass. His 206 and Lehmann’s 160 fired Australia to a daunting 576- massive score by today’s standards.
Though Lara stood firm facing the odds to take up the Aussie challenge, following up his 91 in the first inning with a quintessentially dogged 122 in the next inning, which to this date happens to be his only hundred at Trinidad.
But it wasn’t enough. The team were down 2-0 as Gillespie, Bichel, Macgill wrecked havoc.
The third and must-win Test for the hosts saw Australia crush the West Indies scoring 605 mammoth runs as Waugh, Ponting fired fiery hundreds. The Windies just weren’t good enough.
Not that the West Indians hadn’t grown habitual of staring at whitewashes; the 1998-99 summer had exposed them to their lowest ebb in Test Cricket whereupon under Lara’s captaincy, the team succumbed to a Protean 5-0 whitewash.
So you can imagine what might have been the morale of a team entering the fourth and final Test at Antigua, the venue where their in-form but under-pressure captain had once fired 375.
The days of Ambrose and Walsh long over with Lawson, Drakes and Dillon cutting a lame figure in front of McGrath, Lee, and Gillespie, it was as if a midget had been forced to confront a giant inside the ring.
Yet, a result was to be had. Humiliation was on the cards, and Australia were on the cusp of chasing glory, a never previously-achieved whitewash on the Caribbean shores.
The Test that began on May 9 and was to end on 13 could well have spelled doomsday for the West Indies.
Lara entered the contest at the back of 405 runs. But the fans entered St Johns rebuking a side they may not have believed they were fans of. The press baying for the great man’s blood and that of his team.
What might have Lloyd, Sir Sobers and Sir Richards felt looking at the horrible streak of losses is something inexplicable. The eyes that were habitual of conquering glory were about to witness the inglorious.
Except it never happened.
After bowling out Australia cheaply for 240- a kind of score wherein a Dillon, Drakes, Banks might have pinched themselves to believe given the hammering served to them thus far- it was time for the West Indian reply.
And guess what they turned up with?
A 240 supported by Lara’s 68: the exact total Australia managed.
For the first time for the men wearing the maroon cap, it was even-stevens after having been under the Aussie hammer for 3 consecutive Tests.
But in their next inning, the Australians arose akin to a sleeping giant, Langer and Hayden pushing the West Indians to a point of burnout thanks to a 242-run opening stand.
How then the West Indies managed to bowl them out for 417 is a mystery that even CIA can’t solve. Perhaps the only explanation was bad middle-order batting with Merv Dillon and Omari Banks picking 6 wickets between them.
But eventually with a little over one and a half days to play, the West Indies were tasked to chase 418.
They had never, until such time, even come close to a 350-plus score whilst chasing in the last inning.
But that’s where things turned dramatically and in hair-raising fashion with Day 4 becoming the great antithesis of the Australians.
Gayle and Smith almost took the team to a fifty run stand when Lee fired the opening salvo, the Jamaican failing to execute a pull shot at short mid-wicket.
The score? 48-1.
Not that Smith, a reckless batsman who until recently has been given several chances played any handsome part, departing seventeen deliveries later, making just 23.
Darren Ganga, who had been in fine form in the series failed when it most mattered. His contribution? Just 8.
Lee, Gillespie, and McGrath too good for the top three wickets.
At 74 for 3, in walked the Prince of Trinidad staring as always at a house of cards that seemed to be washed away by a huge wave in the ocean.
But Lara hung in. As did Ramnaresh Sarwan– arguably speaking, one of the most under-appreciated West Indian batsman of the 2000s.
That’s where the fearsome Aussie trio started to sweat as the West Indians began crawling back into the game.
The recovery mode was on; Lara fluent on the blackfoot and elegant on the front foot. Sarwan timing the ball with the ease with which a kid accepts a candy.
The 91-run stand with Brian Lara firing yet another fifty seemed to be working when Stuart MacGill struck.
Probably there are many quintessential ’90s kids who may have shut their TVs back then when Lara got dismissed.
Who could blame them?
For 26 straight overs, not a single wicket had fallen and for the first time ever, the ever-relaxed gum-chewing Steven Waugh had begun to visibly fret, which is when Lara went for one exuberant shot too many.
Opting to come out of the crease to hoist the off spinner over long-on, MacGill stuck the stumps. The captain was back, but after scoring 60.
And the team at 4 for 165 was nearly done in or was it?
Next man in was Shivnarine Chanderpaul, a batsman Sarwan was all too familiar with.
The confidence of the two Guyanese with a penchant to take guard by digging the bails on the crease were high as was of the Australians who’d smelled blood with Lara’s departure.
Who knew that a firm resistance, arguably one of a kind in Caribbean cricket, was to follow?
There started match-repairing stand as Chanderpaul and Sarwan started building a composed alliance.
The kinds that should inspire a Hope, Hetmyer, Brathwaite, Mayers and Bonner today that they too can do it.
Not a wicket fell for another 26 overs. The Aussies, until such time, panting and desperately looking for chances.
But Chanderpaul, the hard grafter had got his eye in and was staring well beyond a half-century with Sarwan having already reached his milestone.
Waugh brought in Bichel to no avail. He tried Gillespie over McGrath and then McGrath over Gillespie. Still no respite.
Lee was found huffing and puffing but the two Guyanese soldiers kept batting.
The West Indies reached 288 in the 90th over of their run-chase with just four wickets down.
That’s when Sarwan dragged one back to Brett Lee and the Australians finally breathed a sigh of relief. Sarwan, who went on to hit thirteen more hundreds ahead in Tests might not have hit a more impactful one as this knock.
His 105 was all sweat and toil.
But there was more heartbreak for the West Indies as the usually sticky Ridley Jacobs lasted just one delivery.
The West Indies nosedived from 288 for 5 to 288 for 6.
With 130 to get and 4 wickets in hand, you didn’t have to be a clairvoyant to sense which way the pendulum was shifting.
But thank god, Chanderpaul was around and he’d eventually strike a golden ton, finishing with 104 before Lee found a way to his outside edge, Gilly doing the rest.
Between them, the two Guyanese soldiers consumed 293 deliveries to keep the West Indies afloat.
On the final day, the West Indies needed 47 with just 3 wickets in hand but their start was terrible.
Chanderpaul fell very early in the day leaving Vasbert Drakes and the now cricketer-turned-muscian Omari Banks meeting on the pitch to form an unlikely alliance.
The scorecard read 372-7.
Perhaps if there’s ever a lifetime achievement award to be handed to a bowler for playing a supporting role in the greatest fourth-inning chase, it should consider Banks as a worthy contender for the right hander stuck to the crease for 114 deliveries for his unbeaten 47.
With Australians trying everything in their might, McGrath, Gillespie and Lee hurling bouncers and yorkers, the West Indians just didn’t budge.
Those who mock today’s T20-obsessed youth who care little for patience should have seen the doggedness of that team and the patience it applied to counter overwhelming odds.
Alas what will they know, who only know of T20 cricket, the purist might wonder?
Then, on the final ball of MacGill’s 36th over, a short one pitched just around off, Drakes punched the red ball to the cover boundary.
And an entire Antigua erupted, crowds on their feet.
The mega climax had happened, the dark clouds had dissipated in front of pure Caribbean sunshine as West Indies chased the improbable 418.
The fans who little over a day and a half ago were hounding their Caribbean heroes were wielding adulatory placards as if they’d witnessed a revolution.
Moreover, as West Indies chased 418 runs on May 13, they did, in lighter vein, prove thirteen isn’t always an unlucky number.
And that shaping destiny often lies in one’s own hands.
The fear of a whitewash was evaded and finally in Sir Vivian Richards-land, the sun was shining, the weather was sweet.
But that was long before, way before human correspondence began over Facebook or relied on a tweet.
(the West Indies must chase similar glories today and they certainly can. Reminder- the 395 chased earlier in Bangladesh!)