As the IPL league winds down, with franchises getting eliminated and the attention shifting from players to owners, the Test match season has begun in right earnest. Earlier in May, New Zealand began their tour of England and forced a stalemate at Lord's. The second Test is being played at Old Trafford. In the Caribbean, Ricky Ponting's Australians have begun their defense of the Sir Frank Worrell Trophy at Sabina Park in Kingston, Jamaica.
The Lord's Test began with both teams fielding unheralded line ups - the New Zealand batting and the England bowling, both without their experienced stars. New Zealand batted first, and reached 277 thanks in large part to Brendon McCullum's T20 hangover. England eked out a lead of 42 thanks to Michael Vaughan fighting century, and then had New Zealand reduced to a 120/5 (effectively, with McCullum retired hurt), when Jacob Oram came to New Zealand's rescue producing a strokeful hundred to force a draw.
If Lord's promised a keenly contested series, it looks like the Old Trafford Test will deliver on that promise. Ross Taylor produced a blistering 154 on his first tour of England to boost New Zealand's first innings total to 381. In reply, thanks to a miserly New Zealand bowling effort and Captain Vettori's 5/66, England were bowled out for 202, conceding a lead of 179. New Zealand reached 85/2 in their second innings, before collapsing to the wiles of Monty Panesar (6/37), to leave England with 294 for a series lead. Old Trafford has been a game of batting collapses though, something that England will be weary of. England had themselves reached 2/141 in their first innings before losing 8/61. New Zealand outdid the hosts, losing 8/29! One is hard pressed to recall another Test match in England in May in recent memory, when spinners have had so much success. England have reached 76/1 in their run chase, with Michael Vaughan and Andrew Strauss at the wicket. It promises to be a riveting run chase, especially if one of these two gets a hundred.
The Australian's seemed dominant as usual in the opening Test match at Sabina Park, until the West Indies pace attack brought the game to life towards the end of the third days play. Ricky Ponting began the series with his 35th Test hundred, in itself a magnificient achievement. It was also his second hundred in consecutive innings, following his epic 140 against India at Adelaide. The Australia reached 431, on what has been termed a "up and down wicket". In reply, the West Indian batting was its customary exasperating self. Shivnaraine Chanderpaul was the only batsman other than Runako Morton to play a substantial hand however, and his hundred (if Ponting was on an up and down wicket, then Chanderpaul's must have been an real gem, coming as it did against Lee, Clark and Johnson on a Day 3 pitch), meant the the West Indies finished their first innings 119 runs behind the Australian first innings score. By any standards, this is a sizeable lead. Indeed, if you have followed Australian Test Match play in recent years, this is usually the standard script of any Test Match that they participate in. This time however, the West Indies pace attack tore through the Australian batting line up, reminiscent of the Indian effort at Perth, only much more devastating, to leaving Australia in the dumps at 5/18 at one stage - an effective score of 5/137. Andrew Symonds rescued the visitors with a swashbuckling 79, and honour was restored some what. Still, the West Indies are left with 287 runs to chase in the fourth innings for what will be a memorable win.
The West Indies have not beaten Australia in a live rubber since 1998-99 when Brian Lara made 213 at Sabina Park to silence his critics and write possibly the greatest chapter in the history of the Sir Frank Worrell Trophy since the tied Test at Brisbane. As the West Indians of 2008 eye 287 at the same ground, they will seek to author the first great triumph of the post Lara age. The chinks which appeared in the Australian middle order during the Australian summer have been revealed yet again.
New Zealand for their part, will look to their Captain - Daniel Vettori to lead them to their first great victory of the post-Fleming era. Vettori has played for New Zealand since he was 18 years old, and is in his 81st Test match. It seems to be a spinners pitch, and he has 294 runs to play with. England's most stable Test batting lineup since the late 1980's stands in his way.
Two sub-three-hundred fourth innings run chases. Its hard to imagine a more exciting end game in any Test match. I suspect though, that this round with go to the southern hemisphere sides. Chanderpaul and co. may have other ideas.