Friday, February 6, 2009

England battle back after Gayle and Sarwan's hundreds

Chris Gayle flicks to leg early on the third morning.

Chris Gayle and Ramnaresh Sarwan both recorded centuries in a second-wicket stand of 202 to put West Indies into a commanding position at lunch on the third day at Kingston. A flurry of two wickets in three balls from Stuart Broad in the penultimate over of the session dented their ascendancy a touch, but with Sarwan unbeaten on 103, and the limpet-like Shivnarine Chanderpaul newly arrived at the crease, West Indies were handily placed as they trailed England's first-innings total of 318 by 94 runs with seven wickets remaining.

On Bob Marley's 64th anniversary, it was an auspicious date for a modern-day Jamaican hero to record his first Test century in front of his home crowd. Though he was bowled by Broad for 104 with minutes of the session remaining, Gayle was the undoubted star of the morning session, as he produced one of the most disciplined centuries of his career to ram home West Indies' overnight advantage.

The grandstanding manner with which Gayle reached his hundred - two massive swipes over long-on off Monty Panesar followed immediately by a delicate sweep to fine leg - may have been in keeping with his reputation, but in truth this was an innings of intense dedication. He reached his hundred from a devout 183 balls, and aside from those two late blows, he picked up only two other boundaries in the session, both of them controlled deflections through the slip cordon.

On a slow and sluggish surface, patience was the key for batsmen and bowlers alike. England ploughed a disciplined furrow outside off, occasionally teasing the edge but more often than not hoping against hope for an indiscretion from the incumbent batsmen. It was not forthcoming, as Gayle and Sarwan sensed a genuine opportunity to bat England out of the contest.

Sarwan, whose form had been under some scrutiny in the build-up to this match, was every bit as disciplined as his captain. Resuming on 71, he continued to pepper the off-side with crisp drives and pushes, although on an incredibly slow outfield he did not get full value for his strokes. He picked up a solitary four through the covers as Andrew Flintoff overpitched, and then added his second boundary of the morning in the final over of the session, as he paddled Panesar delicately behind square to bring up his 12th Test century.

By that stage, Sarwan had lost his long-standing partner when Broad found a good tight line and a hint of low bounce to take out Gayle's middle and off stumps, and two balls later Broad added a second as Xavier Marshall was pinned plumb on the crease by another fine wicket-to-wicket delivery. But Chanderpaul's arrival was a reassurance to a wobbling dressing-room, and there were no further dramas before the break.

There had, however, been plenty dramas earlier on in the session, as the referral issue once again reared its head. England and Tony Hill were again on the wrong end of the deliberations, in another confused scenario that highlighted the flaws in the new system. On 85, Gayle flicked at a leg-side delivery from Flintoff, and Matt Prior claimed the catch with glee. Hill immediately upheld the appeal, but Gayle was not amused and called for a second opinion. Daryl Harper in the TV replay booth was not permitted to use Hotspot to aid his adjudication, so he had only a very sketchy and inconclusive slow-motion replay to work with. For the second day running, the benefit of the doubt was given to the batsman, and Hill, who would not have been umpiring in this game had Asoka de Silva got his visa in time, must have been wishing he'd never landed in the country.

England's fielders took the set-back in good heart, however, as well they might. With Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen newly unveiled as the latest IPL millionaires, the mood among the senior players was properly rather chipper in spite of the setback of the scoreline.