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England identify Lara as a gateway to series success

Christopher Martin-Jenkins

29 January 1998

A POOR-looking pitch suggests that the first Test, which starts at Sabina Park this morning, will be won by the side with the deeper resolve and resilience. At this stage of the tour that team should be England but no one yet knows how quickly the West Indies will pull together under Brian Lara, leading them as the official captain for the first time, or whether the extra responsibility will rekindle the genius which made him into an idol, writes Christopher Martin-Jenkins.

A large part of the troubles which have beset West Indies cricket since Australia ended their 15-year spell without a series defeat, including another defeat by Australia, a World Cup humiliation against Kenya and the recent 3-0 reverse in Pakistan, stem from the impossible expectations placed upon Lara. There may be more than a grain of truth in the statement by the Trinidad and Tobago Cricket Association that there is a ``calculated plot to sow the seeds of his destruction''.

Lara has only one weapon with which to retaliate - his cricket bat. A Test average once higher than anyone's except Sir Donald Bradman's has been reduced to 36 over the last two years. In Pakistan it dropped to 21. It was not a sudden fall from grace, but, equally, it is possible to exaggerate his decline under Courtney Walsh, which many Jamaicans openly say, surely quite absurdly, was deliberate.

In Australia last February, for example, his 132 on a dreadful, cracked pitch at Perth was comfortably the highest score of the match and the West Indies won. Back at home he made his ninth and tenth Test hundreds against India and Sri Lanka. He remains a brilliant batsman but he is vulnerable in the slip and gully area and to balls swinging into his pads from the off.

If you had to boil the series down to the smallest essence, therefore, its outcome would depend on how effectively England apply their plan to attack Lara's fondness for lavish offside strokes. But it is a game for 22 players and Graham Thorpe is, on recent evidence, just as important a target for the West Indian bowlers.

The West Indies are still, man for man, the stronger team. Like England they will not name a final XI until this morning, although they are expected to add Franklyn Rose and Mervyn Dillon to two of the three experienced fast bowlers - Walsh and either Curtly Ambrose or Ian Bishop. On a pitch with cracks which looks certain to provide unpredictable bounce that should be a dangerous combination.

The fact that accuracy will be the key ought to make Ambrose, despite his poor recent form and a record here of six wickets at 65 each in six Tests, an obvious selection. Walsh, however, will be the bowler England most desire to conquer. Quite apart from needing 23 wickets to beat Malcolm Marshall's record (376) as the West Indies' leading wicket taker, he is especially anxious to do well in Jamaica, whose prime minister has just appointed him ``Ambassador and Special Envoy''.

Apart from the gifted Carl Hooper, who despite eight Test hundreds still averages only 34 but whose elevation to the vice-captaincy is shrewd, West Indies still have in Lara, Shivnarine Chanderpaul and the recalled Jimmy Adams three left-handers averaging over 50. Yet in 11 Tests last year they were dismissed for 200 six times. That suggests loss of confidence due to bad wickets - part of Lara's problem - and a lack of team spirit.

England have no such problem. They should have played one more match than they have but their XI, almost certainly the one which played the first two matches, are well prepared and are a genuine team under Mike Atherton.

Adam Hollioake, recovering well from a dislocated shoulder, practised normally yesterday and should play while Jack Russell wins his 50th cap after an absence of 12 Tests. He will not be keeping wicket in his beloved white floppy sunhat, despite a battle with the ECB to persuade them that he should do so rather than comply with the policy for a smarter side all wearing the same gear (either caps with the new coronet and three lions, or stiffer white sunhats with the same crest).

Teamwork has been the side's theme and it stands a good chance of passing this first, potentially crucial, test. Of all the batsmen in the side John Crawley looks the most classical but he is the only one of the top five without previous experience of an England tour of the Caribbean. Seven of the remaining eight players know what is required from personal experience and for family reasons the other one, Dean Headley, is at home here. What is needed from them all, especially if the pitch is uneven, is disciplined cricket.

The social context of the series is as important as ever, as proved by the stated intention of many Jamaicans to boo Lara. Against inter-island rivalry, a deeper passion still burns in many breasts. In the words of the respected Jamaican journalist Tony Becca: ``It is, to many West Indians, those who were colonised against the colonial masters, sons of slaves versus slave masters.''

There is no doubt, however, where the cricketing mastery has lain in the last 30 years and the time may have come for England to strike its blow for independence.

9 May 1995: Lara will provide key to recovery

West Indies (from): * B C Lara, S C Williams, S L Campbell, S Chanderpaul, C L Hooper, J C Adams, - D Williams, C E L Ambrose, C A Walsh, F A Rose, M Dillon, I R Bishop, N A M McLean.

England (probable): * M A Atherton, A J Stewart, J P Crawley, N Hussain, G P Thorpe, A J Hollioake, - R C Russell, A R Caddick, D W Headley, A R C Fraser, P C R Tufnell.

Umpires: S A Bucknor (West Indies) & S Venkataraghavan (India).

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Date-stamped : 25 Feb1998 - 19:31