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England mindful of Lara threat

By Scyld Berry

28 December 1997

ANY impresario would be proud to have arranged this one. West Indies, former Test champions, are on the way down, England on the rise. In the last year both sides have lost 3-2 to Australia. The next three months will see if they meet and pass each other.

An impresario would be prouder still to have arranged such a protagonist at the centre of this well-matched contest. Too often cricket matches are reduced to over-simplified terms like Shane Warne v Sachin Tendulkar instead of Australia against India. In this case, however, the single most important factor in the series will be Brian Lara.

Lara is the one player on either side capable of greatness, of dictating the play, of heroic status, or of tipping the whole West Indian boat over. Curtly Ambrose was capable of it and Shivnarine Chanderpaul can bat all day, but Lara alone can keep on scoring at almost a run a ball, thus making time for his bowlers to win. An England fielder who, in Lara's first hour at the crease at Sabina Park, puts down a catchable chance is guaranteed immortality.

Lara shaped the first Test on England's last visit, when West Indies were wobbling at 23 for three in reply to England's 234. Lara, too, wobbled at first against Devon Malcolm, found something in his eye to blame, then whipped the game from England. In the second Test his 167 mastered the match again, and the series was to all intents decided. Only a statistician would rate his 375 in a dead match as a better innings.

But for the last two years Lara has stayed inside his tent. His Test average had been higher than anyone's bar Don Bradman; in the last two years it has been 36. Glenn McGrath first made him vulnerable, going round the wicket to tuck him up, before offering a wide one which Lara could not resist chasing. But the trouble has lain as much inside Lara.

'The Prince' has never had to wait before, dubbed in his earliest teens by Sir Garfield Sobers as his successor, captain of Trinidad at 20, the world record-holder for the highest Test and first-class innings when just turned 25. But since then the West Indian Board and Courtney Walsh have made him wait, and fret, and in May he will turn 29. In common with Michael Atherton, whose team leave for Antigua on Saturday, he feels he needs captaincy to get the most out of his batting.

So in the absence of abdication Lara has become impatient, hitting out or getting out, not having the motivation to graft, and in the meanwhile ever more things have come into his life apart from cricket. Walsh is no ordinary 35-year-old fast bowler either: far from fragile, he has claim to be the most durable fast bowler there has been since he has only ever missed one Test match through injury. In the field he is no great tactician, but neither were his predecessors, and he is is unstinting in his effort, and impossible to dislike [rumour of animosity between him and Lara looked baloney in Sharjah]. West Indies, moreover, still need Walsh to shape the youthful promise of their new quick bowlers, Franklyn Rose and Mervyn Dillon.

Could Lara buckle down if the West Indian Board confirm Walsh as captain again in early January? [If Lara is made captain, Walsh might or might not continue: as he has played 96 Tests and is paid on an incremental basis, and is only 23 wickets short of Malcolm Marshall's West Indian record, he would have cause to carry on in the ranks.] The promise of the captaincy after the England series might satisfy Lara, but this is by no means certain as that serious Jamaican Jimmy Adams is being groomed.

Lara has the sop of Warwickshire's captaincy next summer, ill-suited though a racehorse is to the county grind. Above all, he has his commercial interests to motivate and save him from the life of playboy. West Indians have traditionally raised their game to defeat England for obvious historical reasons, and especially in front of their own people, for whom success at cricket has had a significance beyond sport: it is for this reason West Indies cannot afford to lose this winter. But Lara also has to score runs to return his commercial profile to the level of 1994, when he was photo-opportunited in his pinstripe in the city.

If Lara performs, West Indies will win because they have the fast bowling. If Lara remains in his tent, turning up late or never for practice as has been known, trying the patience of Clive Lloyd who would be his father-figure as well as team manager, the West Indian batting could not manage without him and things might well fall apart. For their whole structure is creaking as cricket recedes rapidly in popularity.

Early last year a new Board came to power to initial enthusiasm. For the first time the West Indies were treated to two home series in one season. Twenty-four players were put on contract, thus absolving them of the need to tread the mill of the English league and county circuit.

Now no money can be found, and there are no more contracts except for each series. The Board had moved to Barbados to make a permanent home after a promise of tax concessions: these did not materialise, so they have upped and moved to Antigua, where they have found life even more expensive. The last pay-out to the regional associations was not a dollar.

The economic reality of a small population [some six million in the English-speaking Caribbean], and no indigenous big business, prompted the new Board, under their president Pat Rousseau, to accept the sponsorship terms offered by Red Stripe, the Jamaican brewers, run by Pat Rousseau. A condition of Red Stripe's sponsorship was that a disproportionate number of one-day games, including the semi-finals and final, had to be staged in Jamaica, even if Jamaica were not involved, so that televised coverage would help the sponsors penetrate the West Indian emigrant community in Florida.

Inter-territorial rivalry in the West Indies was quelled during the dozen years of invincibility after 1980, but it does not take much to reactivate the accusations of bias. They are different countries; the British Lions are more naturally homogeneous than the West Indies cricket team, and they have not always been united. If England were to hold on in Jamaica, when they will be a little too short of match-practice to peak, and win the second in Trinidad, the centrifugal forces could set to work.

England, for their part, have become steady and consistent enough during Atherton's captaincy to nip in if West Indies do not perform. Australia were well beaten when they were under-cooked at Edgbaston and, the series won, under-motivated at the Oval.

England's head is strong, too, as it is the tough nut of Atherton, so the West Indian ploy of decapitating the opposing captain to make his team wither should not work for the third series running. If panic had prevailed in late summer, a new captain, especially a younger one, would have made England more vulnerable.

But West Indies can still recall how to win Test series. No member of the England side knows what it is like, as 11 years have passed since they won a major series; and in county cricket as well, outside one-day games, winning for most of them is not a habit.

The ball is therefore in the West Indian court. If they do not play it properly, England with their three good seamers and steady spinner have improved enough to put that ball away competently. It adds up to a West Indian win, Lara willing, but by the closest margin in the Caribbean since the early 1970s when, amazing to recall, West Indies did not have fast bowlers.

Source: The Electronic Telegraph
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Date-stamped : 25 Feb1998 - 19:43