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Lara's Ready For The World

by Tony Cozier

March 29 1998

NO West Indies captain had been more diligently groomed for the post, more actively promoted for it or more openly coveted it.

None came to it by a longer and more contentious route, none at a more troubled time.

So how has Brian Lara fared in his first series at the helm?

The simple answer is that he won and won by the irrefutable margin of 3-1.

As Michael Atherton, his beleaguered counterpart on the other side, and Richie Richardson and Courtney Walsh, his immediate predecessors, all painfully discovered, it is the one criterion by which all captains are ultimately judged.

In Lara's case, instant success was even more critical.

The West Indies had just returned from the disastrous series in Pakistan, heavily beaten in all three Tests, when Pat Rousseau called Lara into his apartment at the Jolly Harbour Resort in Antigua in January and informed him that the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) had finally accepted the selectors' recommendation to install him as captain in place of Courtney Walsh.

During the shambles of Pakistan, Walsh and tour manager Clive Lloyd, the former revered captain, had spoken of a lack of pride and commitment. There were snide suggestions that Walsh and Lara were at odds and that Lara (average 21.50) didn't pull his weight.

Not everyone was convinced that Lara was yet ready to replace the widely-admired Walsh or would ever be. His repeated summons before the WICB disciplinary committee were, in the typically expressive phrase of Wes Hall, like an albatross around his neck.

He was under the microscope and he knew it.

``People are looking to you to ensure the West Indies get back on top,'' he said prior to the series. ``The life of West Indies people almost depends on how well we do. It is a burden on every individual, every member of the team, to ensure that we do.''

Off the field, Lara has handled that burden without fault. The old petulance has been replaced by a smiling face and an easy manner.

From the moment he sat before the TV cameras at the conference proclaiming his elevation, he has been co-operative and comfortable with the media and clearly at ease with his players.

Realising, better than many, the utter need to have tried and trusted men around him, he courted Walsh when the disappointed, displaced captain took a week deciding whether he would continue. He personally emphasised to Curtly Ambrose his essential worth when rumours were flying around that the great fast bowler was on the point of retiring.

He depended heavily on them. Repeatedly, he would approach them during an over with a suggestion or a pat on the back and they never let him down.

With seemingly insignificant gestures, he encouraged his newer players, too.

When Philo Wallace, recently recalled to the team, was out for his dazzling 92 in the final Test, he returned to a standing ovation from all round the Antigua Recreation Ground. Lara, next man in, pointedly waited on the dressing room steps, himself applauding, so that Wallace had the stage all to himself.

The uninhibited celebrations that followed Tuesday's unlikely finale in St. John's and the joyful lap of honour, with Lara to the fore, were evidence of a team that had refound its spirit and confidence.

Most significantly, the match-winner was Walsh and the first man to embrace him when the last wicket fell was the one who had supplanted him as captain.

On the field, Lara has not been inhibited by the newness of his post. Some of his tactics have been unconventional and have borne the unmistakeable mark of Joey Carew's influence.

But, as has always been his way, he has been prepared to be guided by instinct and, as is so often the case with such boldness, even his most obtuse decisions tended to bear fruit.

He used Ambrose and Walsh in one-over spells, a ploy introduced in Perth a year earlier, and went through ten bowling changes between lunch and tea on Monday.

He gave Shivnarine Chanderpaul, an occasional leg-spinner, an over of medium-pace in Port-of-Spain, used Clayton Lambert, whom few knew could actually bowl, to change ends in St. John's, and often set fields that defied textbook explanation.

After Walsh had got rid of the potential brickwall, Jack Russell, in the closing stages on Tuesday, he immediately swung him around from the Factory Road to Pavilion End and the old general finished off the job in no time flat.

And Lara relied on spin more than any recent West Indies skipper has done, a legacy of his upbringing in Trinidad.

The upshot was that, between them, Hooper and new leg-spinner Dinanath Ramnarine claimed 24 wickets and sent down a combined 85 overs in England's second innings in Antigua. Shades of Ramadhin and Valentine.

It has given the attack a refreshing new balance and we can expect more of the same.

There were, for sure, strategies that were hard to fathom. He baffled in Port-of-Spain when Kenny Benjamin and Nixon McLean opened the bowling in England's second innings, rather than Ambrose and Walsh.

In Georgetown his delay in calling up Ambrose for the second new ball with England tottering at 84 for seven was as puzzling as the lengthy neglect in Bridgetown of Hooper against Graham Thorpe who hadn't handled him capably in the earlier Tests.

As new captain with a long-term future, Lara would have appreciated the luxury of being able to blood a few more younger players but the object, first and foremost, was to win.

He would have appreciated a few more runs for himself, too. Even with 417 at an average of 52.12, he always seemed capable of more and he has, after all, now gone eight effective Tests without a hundred.

He has made it plain that this was a build-up for the big one and that his sights are set mainly on Australia next year. ``By the time they come here, it would mean that, if I keep my place, I would have had ten Tests in charge,'' he said. ``A captain at that stage would hope to have a team refocused, a team playing and giving of its best and looking to get back on top. I don't want to lose against Australia.''

England has proved heartening preparation. South Africa is next and then the task of regaining the Frank Worrell Trophy.

Challenging times lie ahead and the new captain is already primed for them.

Source: The Barbados Nation
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Date-stamped : 30 Mar1998 - 19:41