West Indies close in elusive Test victory
New Zealand 221 (Latham 82, Taylor 4-34) and 257 for 8 (Williamson 52) lead West Indies 460 (Brathwaite 129, Bravo 109, Blackwood 63, Sodhi 4-96) by 18 runs
Innings and 51 runs, innings and 126 runs, innings and 73 runs, eight wickets, 186 runs - margins of defeat for West Indies in Tests over the past year. The wretched run prompted big changes: out went the perpetually under-pressure captain Darren Sammy, the bowling attack was revamped before this series, and the batting was rejigged before this Test. Barring an all-day torrential downpour on Friday, or something utterly sensational from the New Zealand tail, the sweeping changes are set to bear their first fruit in Port-of-Spain.
It's been a long time since West Indies dominated a Test against a top-eight side as they did this week. BJ Watling and Mark Craig may have frustrated the home side and the smattering of fans who showed up at Queen's Park Oval, but their ninth-wicket defiance never threatened to alter the balance of the match. Dwayne Bravo, the allrounder looking to make a Test return, was among those watching from the stands, dressed in bright pink that was appropriate for a post-victory party, but that celebration will have to wait a bit.
New Zealand began the day 166 behind, and though there was no sensational collapse, there weren't many substantial partnerships either as West Indies chipped away through the day. Curtly Ambrose, the West Indies' bowling coach, had given an animated speech during the team huddle at the start of the day, and he will be pleased that each of his specialist bowlers did their bit in the victory push.
In the 20th over of the day, Chris Gayle was looking at the sky and pumping his fists in delight, while the bowler Kemar Roach was unleashing a string of joyous whoops. West Indies had just got the rock of New Zealand's batting, Kane Williamson, ending his three-and-a-half-hour vigil.
Either side of the Williamson wicket, there were moments of magic from Sulieman Benn to prise out two more wickets. First, he bowled a ripper that reared off a length to take Tom Latham's glove on its way to silly point. Then, late in the morning session, he pulled off a bit of athleticism unexpected from the 6' 7" spinner, sticking out his right arm to pluck a low, hard return drive from Jimmy Neesham. The ball stuck in his palm, but Benn barely celebrated the astonishing catch - just the usual high-fives with his team-mates as though it was an everyday occurrence. Only a wide grin that remained for minutes after the dismissal betrayed how much he enjoyed that catch.
It was a Herculean effort from Benn, who bowled unchanged between the 26th and the 86th over, to tie up one end and allow the quicks time to recover. His efforts were even more crucial to the victory push as one of the three quicks, Shannon Gabriel who had a poor first innings, was given only five overs in the first 68 of the innings.
West Indies captain Denesh Ramdin turned to Gabriel after lunch, and the faith was rewarded. Ross Taylor and BJ Watling had been resisting gamely, but Gabriel tempted Taylor into driving one away from his body, resulting in a nick to the keeper.
That brought in Hamish Rutherford, who recovered from a stomach bug that prevented him from batting on Wednesday evening. Rutherford could be seen yawning a handful of overs before his turn to bat, but he had to be far more attentive in the middle as the seamers were getting the ball to dart around and Benn was also probing.
Watling again proved how reliable he is in the lower-middle order, but Rutherford showed that he has some way to go before becoming a consistent source of runs for New Zealand. He was squared up on his first delivery, fortunate not to edge it, but there were plenty of edges in his short innings after that. One dropped short of Chris Gayle at first slip, another flew through the vacant third slip area, another deflected the ball onto his pads. He finally perished offering no stroke to an incoming delivery during an outstanding spell from Jerome Taylor with the old ball.
When Ish Sodhi and Tim Southee perished soon after tea, a four-day finish seemed a dead certainty, but Craig and Watling survived 27.3 overs to take the game to the final day. An innings defeat was averted, but the lead is a mere 18, and Trinidad can expect their delayed victory party on Friday.