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Caribbean passions rising as Lara prepares for his destiny

By Mark Nicholas

29 January 1998

A MONTH ago bookmakers in the Caribbean would have made England favourites for this now eagerly anticipated series. Disaffection with Brian Lara and Curtly Ambrose prompted the odds, and the indifference of the team in Pakistan before Christmas, along with an increasing lack of trust in selectors and administrators, confirmed them.

It was not so much that English cricket suddenly sparkled though England's canny and committed play in Sharjah rocked the cynics - rather more that the light had gone out in the West Indian game, that the passion and the flair, which was its trademark, had disappeared.

Then Brian Lara was made captain. Now if you are looking to ignite opinion in these parts, giving Lara something he has not earned - and there has been a lot of that since his 375 against England four years ago - is a sure way to do it.

Since Lara gets the juices running more than almost any of the remarkable cricketers who have preceded him to the leadership of these proud islands - separate countries and cultures, do not forget - passions have been seriously aroused.

Some are appalled by his elevation, others unable to refrain from their delight. The point is that no one is indifferent; that on street corners cricket is the subject of animated debate again; in short, that people care once more.

There are four reasons for Lara's appointment, which come in no preferred order. The first is his tactical skill, which he indicated as a 19-year-old boy when leading the West Indies Under-25 team in Zimbabwe.

The Zimbabweans, who take trouble over their guests, thought him not just a magical player but a decent ambassador as well. Then a year later he was made the youngest captain in the history of West Indian cricket when chosen to lead Trinidad in the Red Stripe Cup.

This was not an immediate success from the man-management angle, but when he returned to the job three years later, he rejuvenated a rotten Trinidad team and, as Wisden said, ``the transformation was due almost solely to the inspiration of the captain''.

The second reason is his batting, which has lost its way through the ease of its initial success and the fawning which followed. On Tuesday Lara said his batting was at rock bottom and that it could only improve.

There are a few blokes who would like his idea of rock bottom and a few Englishmen whose tans will turn pale if he returns to anywhere near his former glory. This second reason is the concept of giving a man responsibility and thereby motivating his neglect.

The third is his aura and his destiny, for it is surely as if Brian Charles Lara were born to be king. Viv Richards had this, Sir Garfield Sobers too, an undefinable charismatic quality that stops a room or turns a street.

Interestingly neither Richards nor Sobers were great captains of the West Indies - good ones to a degree, yes, but more by dint of their play than their acumen - because Richards was too manic, too reactive, and Sobers too preoccupied to create and unite a team.

They had their own agendas, not selfishly necessarily, but by their nature, and captaincy is not about looking after number one.

This point will be the litmus test of Lara and leads us to the last reason for his elevation. Something had to be done. The team management of Clive Lloyd and Malcolm Marshall, who were close to the softened heartbeat, knew as much and convinced the selectors - Marshall is one, oddly Lloyd is not - but not until recently could the selectors convince the Board of Control.

The Board were unimpressed by Lara as prima donna and they were scared of public reaction to the promotion of an errant son and the demotion of the widely appreciated Courtney Walsh.

What the public could not see was that Walsh was arousing nobody; that Walsh is an honest charming man, a brilliant bowler and a marvellous ambassador but that, other than if you are 22 yards away and helmeted up, Walsh was too inoffensive - too good a bloke really - for such a demanding brief.

He was ideal captaining cosy Gloucestershire, fine leading Jamaica, but ask him to extract an emotion out of six diverse and potentially explosive islands and you are asking the wrong fellow.

SO the Board asked their one catalyst, the controversial Lara, and by doing so they lit the fuse again and now wait and hope this supreme talent will let it burn across the Caribbean. The new captain of the West Indies is the holder of the two world batting records.

The West Indian psyche craves success, Lara has had plenty of it and he is not now, in the hour of his greatest challenge, to be underestimated.

Which is why the bookmakers are having a rethink, that and the confirmation that Darren Gough is not coming after all, which goes nicely, from a West Indian angle, with the news that Dominic Cork was not chosen in the first place.

They are at a loss over here about Cork, hat-trick hero of Old Trafford 2.5 years ago and tormentor, of Lara particularly, in England's other fine win at Lord's. Our badly behaved boy is captain now, they taunt, yours never made it on to the plane.

West Indians talk brightly too of Gough in the breath of their own style of a colourful, uncomplicated and smiling cricketer, who wins matches with his dare.

The point about Cork and Gough is that they swing the ball, and swing is the thing on these bare dry pitches against batsmen who are sloppy with their footwork and prone to rash strokes.

Lightning speed would do, but England do not have any. So Dean Headley, who looks the business, Andy Caddick, who demonstrably is the business, if only he kept at it himself, and Angus Fraser, who has expertly brushed aside the move by Ashley Cowan for his place, will rely on discipline to frustrate their opponents.

Whether discipline alone will be enough to contain the prince of Trinidad and whether England's obvious and justified self-confidence - Atherton has said this week that in 1994 England came here in hope, this time they are in expectation will be enough to overwhelm a team led by a man with so much to prove are the issues over which the odds have become even.

Source: The Electronic Telegraph
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Date-stamped : 25 Feb1998 - 19:33