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Lara is turning his rich talent to captaincy

By Mark Nicholas

16 February 1998

ON the first day of this surprising match in Trinidad, the West Indies were bowled out for a rather feeble 159. In their dressing room, which was embarrassed, Brian Lara implored, begged and beseeched his bowlers to ``do it'' just one more time, just one more of those drag-us-back-into-the-match calls, whose familiarity has dogged the West Indies since the glory, glory days when Greenidge and Haynes, Richards and Richardson ensured that the fearful quartet had a bundle to bowl to.

Revealingly Lara continued his talk with the promise that should the bowlers do their bit, the batsmen absolutely would not let them down again.

This insider information was leaked by Malcolm Marshall, chief assassin and now chief coach to the team, and doubtless, not by mistake. Lara's appointment has not pleased everyone, too moody said his critics, too self-interested, so the job is on to make public Lara's commitment to the position and his talent for leadership.

The jobbers need not worry. Lara is on course, even his batting is beginning to bubble and it has not done that for the best part of a year. The most interesting so far of Lara's captaincy idiosyncracies has been his crafty use of Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh. There is an understandable tendency, when you have a very special fast bowler in your midst, to use him too much. This tires the talent, which dilutes his firepower.

Worse still, it turns him from shock bowler to stock bowler which, in its way, is an insult and so aggravates the talent. Lara has spared Ambrose, saving him for defining moments against top-order batsmen and to blow away the tail, which he does with relish. On Saturday Ambrose did not bowl between 10.45am and 2.15pm. When he did, he was fresh and had the maximum effect.

There was talk before the first Test that the sacked captain, Walsh, might not respond to the new captain. Typically of Walsh, his performances have dismissed such stirring, for he is as involved as ever - if differently. Walsh began his career for the West Indies in the role of workhorse, allowing Marshall, Michael Holding and Joel Garner to bowl in bursts. More recently as captain, and with Ambrose injured, Walsh appointed himself strike bowler and returned such heroic figures, especially in Pakistan, that the critics of Lara doubled their adoration of Walsh.

Now Lara has returned Walsh to his former work, tying up an end and bowling those long searching spells on which he thrives and which made his name. Walsh appears interested and relaxed and not to miss the captaincy, which is to his credit and to Lara's as well.

There are other things which have featured Lara as born leader. Thoughtful, unorthodox field settings, such as a short mid-on for Alec Stewart's upright on-side strokes; a short extra cover for Nasser Hussain's sometimes straight-legged driving; eccentric forays down the pitch in mid-over to chat with a bowler twice, which have brought wickets that over; the confident use of Nixon McLean, which tells McLean that he is a wanted, trusted cricketer.

It is true Lara would now admit that he went too far giving McLean and Kenny Benjamin the new ball in the second innings of the previous Test in Trinidad. Imagine that - ignoring Ambrose and still winning the match.

There was the length of time Lara took over the ball-change on Thursday evening, when the stuttering delays interrupted John Crawley's concentration and led to Ambrose shattering his stumps next ball. Stuart Williams' batting has benefited from unconditional encouragement.

The Williams point is an interesting one because previous accusations against Lara have revolved around the idea that he has his own agenda and is not sensitive to team-mates. In a way this has been unfair, because it has been applied to a man burdened by outrageous success and torn from his origins by the parasites who fawn on him.

Now that he is his own man again and has the respect he craved, he is able to release his natural personality, which is much gentler and more sympathetic than is perceived. His handling of the abandonment of Sabina Park was the work of a master PR man, a slave of the game and a generous opponent.

Beneath all this lies Lara the batsman; the genius, if cricket, as against music or art, say, can have such a thing, whose flame has begun to live again. His scores so far of 55 and 17, 42 and 47 implied a job half done, but they have been done through application on difficult pitches and they indicate his present ethic of contribution to the overall cause rather than the private bank.

He remains as great a master of flare and style as of just making runs and, along with Shane Warne, is the ultimate in modern cricket box office. If through being both, he arouses abnormal expectations it is hardly his fault, for even in these brief innings - and something more substantial is on the way he empties bars and seduces corporates from their lunch.

He has played some strokes, which have caught the breath - the old late-cuts the newly discovered on-drives, the rashly attempted pull shots from good-length bowling, for example, which have stopped West Indian hearts. The point is that both catalysed animated crowd response.

The high open backlift is there, the pure arc of the golfer's follow-through, the sumptuous drives and the subtle deflections, and all made by the co-ordination of hands and fast footwork.

Brian Lara has lost nothing except, for a time, his way. The captaincy has given it back, given him focus and ambition.

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Date-stamped : 16 Feb1998 - 15:34