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West Indies turn to Lara for Test series against England

Christopher Martin-Jenkins

8 January 1998

THE West Indies Board bowed yesterday to the weight of cricketing opinion in the Caribbean and appointed Brian Lara as captain for the five-Test series against England which starts at Kingston in Jamaica three weeks from today, writes Christopher Martin-Jenkins.

Having overruled their own selection committee when they recommended Lara as captain for the recent series in Pakistan, the board have now accepted that his promotion gives them a better chance of beating England and of preparing for a tough tour of South Africa later this year.

Courtney Walsh, reluctantly ditched after leading the side with dignity and no personal loss of form to three humiliating defeats in Pakistan before Christmas - two by an innings and one by 10 wickets - was considering his future last night. It would be no surprise if he decides to retire immediately from Test cricket (he returns to captain Gloucestershire next season) but there will be anxious attempts to dissuade him from doing so, not least by Clive Lloyd and Malcolm Marshall, the manager and coach who suffered with him in Pakistan.

Walsh needs to play only four more Tests to become the first West Indian bowler to win 100 caps and he is a mere 23 wickets short of Marshall's West Indian record of 376. He has always been his own man, however. He took over the leadership when Richie Richardson resigned during the last World Cup in 1996. Walsh performed heroically in Pakistan and according to Wasim Akram he was still, at 35, the quickest of their fast bowlers. At home in seven Tests against India and Sri lanka last season, however, he took only 11 wickets at 42. If Lara's problem has been a lack of motivation, so might Walsh's now, for all his patriotism and pride. His fielding, never brilliant, has become an unequal struggle under pressure.

The probability, therefore, is that Walsh will not be bowling against England in the weeks ahead. This would still leave Lara with two bowlers of vast Test experience in Ian Bishop and Curtly Ambrose, two more rising talents in Franklyn Rose and Mervyn Dillon, and Reon King in the wings. With Rawl Lewis to bowl leg-breaks if required, the new captain is not without bowling resources. The series will hang, however, on whether he can now rediscover the art of playing the long Test innings. If he does, he will score quickly enough to give his bowlers winning chances. If he does not - especially in Walsh's home island where the first Test is played - he is bound to get a hostile reception.

At 28, Lara is ready to take on the responsibility of captaining an international team and his first attempt, against India last March when Walsh was injured, was auspicious. With very few runs to play with after the West Indies had been behind India on first innings on a much livelier Bridgetown pitch than has been common in recent years, he kept what observers said was the ideal balance between defence and attack while Ambrose, Bishop and Rose bowled India out for 81 in the fourth innings.

This was a remarkable exception to the rule that Test captains generally lose their first match in charge. In Lara's case, however, it remains to be seen if he will be so impressive in foul weather as he always has been in fair. This would be an unjust comment on his batting alone, because in the years when his career was taking its more or less smooth upward curve towards the pheneomenal zenith in 1994, he often scored freely in conditions wherein others were floundering. Devon Malcolm, for example, gave him a very clear hurry up in the first Test at Sabina Park four years ago, but he weathered the storm, made 83 and dominated the bowlers for the rest of the series, signing off with his record 375 in Antigua.

The adulation which followed the breaking of Sir Gary Sobers's record and the almost ridiculous score of 501 not out for Warwickshire which followed but two months later went as much to his head as to his pocket. Nothing had prepared a simple, though by no means unintelligent, young man from a Port of Spain suburb for such instant and intense fame and fortune. The Australians in particular found a way of bringing him down to earth, especially Glenn McGrath, and in the last two years his Test average has been a very mortal 36. The last Coopers and Lybrand World Rankings listed him as only the 13th best batsman in the world.

England's problem now may be that he will prove afresh that he is actually the best. For sheer instinctive brilliance, linked to a sound technical grounding, un doubtedly he is. Batting, however, requires the right shot at the right time and Lara has been either too impatient, or insufficiently motivated, to find it often enough for the good of himself or the West Indies in recent times. In 1996/97 they played 18 Tests, won only six of them and, thanks to the thrashing in Pakistan, lost six of them too.

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