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Australia v West Indies Boxing Day Test: Windies lose Test but find some heart

For a while, the West Indies kept pace with the federal government frontbench, losing only one man before lunch and another by early afternoon.

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There were none of the dreaded clusters. But whenever the visitors looked likely to hold on, the Newtonian laws of Test cricket again asserted themselves.

This was the best day of the series. That might sound like saying the patient died but the operation was otherwise a success, but we take what we can. A fight was taking place, and for long periods the two teams looked as if they belonged in the same weight division.

Signs of life: Jason Holder and his West Indies teammates had their best day of the series.
Signs of life: Jason Holder and his West Indies teammates had their best day of the series. Photo: Getty Images

Wickets had to be prised out, and no batsman lasted less than an hour. While the ball-tracking machinery appeared to have checked out of Melbourne on an early flight, the players were still at it. The West Indians might have lost the match, but they found their heart.

This was a truly meritorious effort by the West Indian batting order, and an argument for why their mooted demotion from Test cricket's top division would be a retrograde step. The longer they play in Australia, the more they learn and the better they get.

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If they spent a traditional tour here and played six first-class teams they would provide solid opposition for Australia. Conversely, if they are given less exposure to strong opposition, and shifted from these big occasions to cricket's backblocks their deterioration will become a vicious cycle.

When cricketers play against their superiors, eventually they narrow the gap. As 1975-76 showed, some tough love in a long Australian summer can be the best education for a young team.

But of course there are no Sheffield Shield teams currently available, and Australia's first-class cricketers are sharing their rooms with West Indian hired guns.

There should be no illusions about whether the Caribbean names in the BBL would do any better than those at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Chris Gayle is good for 80 balls, not 80 overs. Darren Sammy is a poor man's Carlos Brathwaite.

Andre Russell is a superb athlete, but so is Usain Bolt, and neither is a Test cricketer, though Bolt would dearly like to be. Among the BBL brigade, only Dwayne Bravo was missed at the MCG.

So the young men trying to hold out for two days in Melbourne proved that they are the best the West Indies have, and if they were not good enough, they were a good deal better than they were last week. Kraigg Brathwaite is a born blocker who lost his focus after hitting Nathan Lyon to the boundary.

He will learn, as will Rajendra Chandrika, a battler of an opening batsman who might study Alastair Cook to see that cricket can award substantial careers to middling talents, provided they can stay patient under pressure.

After Brathwaite's dismissal, Chandrika and the ever-classy Darren Bravo dug in so successfully that even Shane Warne ran out of advice for the Australian captain. Just at that moment, Peter Siddle struck, but the departure of Bravo did not trigger the expected collapse.

Marlon Samuels and Jermaine Blackwood soaked up another hour, a man walking out of the game crossing paths with one walking in. If Blackwood develops the ability to select the right balls to hit, he will delight cricket followers for years.

Another change in complexion came over the game when Jason Holder joined Denesh Ramdin, and the visitors counter-attacked. Big hits sailed into open space or in the region of Joe Burns, or both. It would be too much to say Steve Smith was flustered, but his frontline pacemen looked sore and frustrated.

As the 80th over approached, Smith began getting rid of his DRS referrals like a CFO for a multinational company jettisoning his profits at tax time, revealing another weakness in the system that may need to be addressed. Runs scored went past runs needed, and the West Indians could dare to dream.

The breakthrough eventually came from Mitchell Marsh, who again proved his worth to the Australian team as a bowler. He was fast and sparky all day, often spiteful, too, and posed more problems than the other speedsters.

The all-rounder theory is not watertight, but in a game where Australia lost three wickets in each innings, Marsh's bowling was much needed.

Lyon also did his job. Talk of him being Australia's greatest-ever off-spinner would have Hugh Trumble turning around corners in his nearby grave, but on days like this Lyon is priceless to his team. If runs were worth double in Adelaide, wickets were worth double in Melbourne, and Lyon, more than those who had conditions made to order, deserved to be man of the match.

At least it was a match.

The West Indies had not really made Australia work in Hobart, but they did here. The difference between the teams on the scoreboard is still great, but some baby steps were taken.

In four years' time, Chandrika, Kraigg Brathwaite, Bravo, Blackwood and Holder can make a serious batting order. Let's hope the cricket world gives those babies a chance to grow up.

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