MAYBE the rain was appropriate for these gloomy times in Caribbean cricket. Brian Lara and Courtney Walsh braved the downpour at the announcement of a new captain for the beleaguered West Indies this week.
What they said during a five minute talk before posing for pictures of apparent 'unity' between the two adversaries is anybody's guess. But, for Lara's sake, it is to be hoped he was able to smooth the path for the man he has deposed to continue to spearhead the West Indian attack during the series against England.
How they need Walsh. Michael Atherton has only to cast his mind back four years to his last visit to the Caribbean to remember how crucial Walsh and Curtly Ambrose, his partner in fast bowling crime, will be to denying England's hopes of their first series win against West Indies for 30 years. The onslaught Walsh aimed at the then rookie England captain during the first Test in Jamaica was one of the most intimidating and awe-inspiring pieces of fast bowling in history while Ambrose was the principal destroyer when England were blown away for 46 at Trinidad. Now age, injury and, in Walsh's case, politics, have eaten away at the heart of the pair.
Lara knows Walsh must be at his side when he walks out at what is sure to be a volatile Sabina Park in Kingston, Jamaica, on Jan 29. He said as much this week while Steve Camacho, chief executive of a West Indies board who are believed to be far from unanimous in their support of Lara, summed it up well when he said: ``Let's just say things would be a little smoother in Jamaica if Courtney decides to play. He is a big favourite there and, while parochialism is nothing new in West Indian cricket, we need the people to be behind us in the first Test of a vital series. Courtney has gone away to think about things and we will see what he decided.''
Yet there are senior figures in West Indian cricket who want Walsh to put himself first even if it could be to the detriment of the team. Pat Rousseau, president of the board, said that he has had several conversations with his fellow Jamaican to make sure he times his retirement exactly right. Camacho, intriguingly, added: ``A great career is clearly coming to a close and the president wants to make sure it ends in the right way. Sometimes it is better for people to be asking why you went rather than why didn't you go before? It's not an easy decision to make.''
In the end, Walsh's close proximity to both 100 Test caps, he has 96, and Malcolm Marshall's West Indian Test wicket record (353 to 376) will surely hold sway. He certainly appeared to make his intentions clear on Friday by taking six for 46 on the spicy relaid Sabina Park Test pitch as Jamaica dismissed Barbados for 136. Yet should he have been allowed to reach those landmarks at the helm? Views in the Caribbean are mixed.
Colin Croft, as a Guyanese living on Lara's home island of Trinidad, is well placed to assess the mood of all the people. The former West Indies fast bowler said: ``People here are delighted at the move but more as a coup for a Trinidadian over a Jamaican rather than any pleasure at what this might do for West Indies cricket. I feel the board had no real option other than to appoint Lara after the debacle of Pakistan but it's ominous that people are looking at him as a saviour, the be all and end all. He just hasn't got the personnel at his disposal to be that. I've heard a few radio phone-ins already and there is a lot of strong anti-Lara feeling about, mainly because of his disciplinary record rather than any doubts about his batting. I'll certainly be disappointed if Walsh doesn't play on because we need him to. I can't see Ambrose being fit enough, as much as he's making positive noises. He was a shell when he came back from Pakistan.''
Richie Richardson, like Walsh, had major problems as captain of a West Idies side that included the flawed genius of Lara, notably on the 1995 tour of England when the batting colossus walked out on his team-mates before being persuaded to return. Richardson questions whether the motives behind the appointment of Lara - to try to motivate him and take away his, at times, negative influence - can be justified.
Richardson said: ``It's going to be very difficult for Brian. I've been speaking to a lot of people in Jamaica, Barbados and the other islands and there doesn't seem to be too much support for him around. West Indies cricket is in a bad way and people are questioning whether the captaincy should go to someone so controversial, someone the board are not completely happy with. It may not be such a bad thing if we lose to England because at least then people would not able to ignore the problems we have with our youth system and player development.''
But the fear, from England's point of view, that the responsibility will focus Lara and take him back to his 1994 peak was given ominous weight as early as Thursday. For then, as soon as he returned to Trinidad after the Antiguan announcement, Lara stepped straight into a trial match between the North and South of Trinidad and Tobago and, as the North's captain, scored an unbeaten 216 out of 450 for six declared, an innings that included four sixes. ``He batted as well as I've ever seen him,'' said Croft. ``Every shot was in front of the wicket. I spoke to a close friend of Brian afterwards and he said that Brian is prepared to curb his lifestyle to cope with the demands and expectations of the captaincy. Maybe this is the first sign that he will do that.'' Ambrose was also back in action on Friday but in more muted terms, taking two for 39 for the Leeward Islands as Guyana were dismissed for 186.
All eyes here have understandably been on the captaincy issue but it is clearly only the tip of the iceberg. Camacho said at the new headquarters of the West Indies board, on a hill overlooking the building site which was once the St John's Recreation Ground, that an awful lot of work needs to be done if this proud group of island nations are ever to return to the glorious recent past.
Round-the-clock work is needed at the Recreation Ground if it is to be ready in time for the fifth Test in March; West Indies are reeling at the embarrassment of being told that seven members of their squad for the Youth World Cup in South Africa are over-age - ``We just messed up,'' said Rousseau; bureaucratic problems still plague the relocation of the board to Antigua; their court case against Desmond Haynes over his eligibility to play for West Indies is still pending even though it was postponed this week; and, from a long-term view, cricket is no longer automatically played in West Indies schools. To top it all, now comes the civil disturbances in Guyana which could easily lead to the cancellation of the third Test.
``Success is cyclical,'' said Camacho, worryingly echoing the very same complacent comment of so many myopic English administrators. Yet he offered some encouragement for those who fear for the future of the magic of West Indies cricket. ``Lots of things are being done to improve matters, believe me. It is clear we are not applying ourselves as assiduously as we did but we know we're in the entertainment industry and must rise to the challenge. And we will do. But an improvement in results would help.''
England's players know it is their challenge to delay any West Indian improvement for a little while yet.