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Walsh the pacifist can ease Lara's turbulence

By Scyld Berry

18 January 1998

IF militant words or actions are to be directed against Brian Lara during the Test series against England, Sabina Park is going to be the place. No cricket ground is further removed from the tranquility of the village green. Whereas most Test grounds offer an escape from daily life, Sabina - the 'Park' has become a complete misnomer - is set in the grimmest reality.

In less than a fortnight's time, when the cricketers of West Indies and England are driven from their hotel in New Kingston to the first Test venue, they will pass the Gun Court, Kingston Gaol and the police barracks; and, like them, Sabina is surmounted all around by razor wire like an American state penitentiary. Further on downtown, where the air itself threatens, people do what they can to survive in the streets of the ghettoes.

On the one hand there is no doubt that many Jamaicans are vexed with Lara for having played the prima donna; or, on the other, that violence has been integral in the island's history ever since Maroons took to the bushy mountains of the interior to avoid recapture. The issue of the moment is whether these two strands will come together during the Test match which, if England were to win, would damage West Indian cricket - and even unity - like nothing hitherto.

The Rasta in the street complains about Lara's attitude: ``He believe too much in heself.'' A prominent headline in Jamaica's Daily Observer on Thursday was: ``Captain Lara? No way.'' It came above a reader's letter which accused Lara of ``disloyalty, selfishness, greed and a mad pursuit of his own personal ambition'' - not to mention the author's contention that Lara ``undermined Walsh's captaincy in Pakistan by promoting disunity and by leading by example as far as sloppy fielding and careless batting is concerned.''

There is much more to this dispute than customary inter-island rivalry, for it touches on the universal question of whether a genius should observe the rules governing everyone else. The West Indian selectors had two options: either to appoint Lara captain or drop him altogether. There was no compromise of the middle way, only an extreme course. Hence an extreme reaction.

At Sabina last weekend Jamaica played Barbados on the Test pitch and Courtney Walsh bowled to see if his appetite for the game remained in the aftermath of his dismissal. He took 10 wickets for 102, kept the bouncers coming at an age, 35, when most fast bowlers are more interested in baby bouncers, and decided to carry on. Since entering Test cricket, Walsh has never had more than a month's rest. No wonder the West Indian physio Dennis Waight says: ``If Courtney ever stopped now he might never start again.''

``The Lara-Walsh debate was the big subject of conversation during that match,'' said a neutral observer of it, Ian Williamson of Synchro-Systems, the company hired by the West Indian Board to do the ticketing for this series. ``I think a lot of Jamaicans would have liked it if Walsh had announced his retirement and said that he would not play under Lara.''

The eminence grise at Sabina is Allan Rae, who has served West Indies in most capacities from opening batsman to selector and board president. ``Lara is not popular,'' according to Rae. ``But I think most people will accept him as the West Indian captain, not as Trinidad's captain. There might be a few who make a bit of trouble at the Test but they'll be outnumbered. Courtney put the kybosh on that one by publicly asking everyone to support the new captain.''

More vocal criticism of Lara is predicted by Tony Becca, sports editor and cricket correspondent of Jamaica's largest-circulation newspaper The Gleaner. ``In October Lara was booed and heckled at Chedwin Park [the ground near Spanish Town where England meet West Indies A next weekend] after Lara had said he was disappointed not to be captain for the tour of Pakistan. My feeling now is that a lot of Jamaicans will give him a hard time, though not so much booing and heckling after Courtney said what he did.''

Walsh, in his few spare moments when he is not bowling fast, runs his own sports shop in Kingston, not in 'downtown', or in 'up-town' - the des-res area in the foothills of the Blue Mountains - but in mid-town, in Burlington Avenue (not Arcade). It is half-a-mile from the Melbourne Club where a young Walsh first saw Michael Holding play and tried to imitate the most graceful of run-ups, though he could do nothing about his chest-on action.

On the morning after Walsh's announcement that he would serve under Lara, there were no demonstrations outside the shop, no shouted threats to the life of Brian. Immaculately neat girls drifted into Half Way Tree primary across the road. Two old women sold trays of cheap drinks and gum on what might once have been a pavement.

Courtney Walsh Sports is one half of a red tin-roofed bungalow, shared with Ideal Car rentals, and has an unusual poster on his front door. A young woman, armed with a manual typewriter, looks after both enterprises.

Already a photograph of the West Indian tour of Pakistan is hanging in the shop, Walsh and Lara sitting side by side in public harmony. The goods - some of them imported from Pakistan and under Walsh's own brand name - are modestly priced, compared with the extortionate mark-up on cricket equipment in England, even if beyond the scope of average Jamaicans.

And the poster on Walsh's front door, called ``Petition against Political Violence'', reads as follows: ``Be it resolved that we, the undersigned, demand of the political directorate that an end be brought to the politically motivated violence inflicted upon our nation and our people. We therefore call on Members of Parliament and Councillors to call in all guns and hand them over to the police.''

Last month Jamaica had a general election, the first peaceful election since the gun battles of the Manley-Seaga era. Guyana has also had a recent election but the results have been so disputed that the West Indian Board may announce tomorrow that the third Test will have to be transferred from Georgetown. In Jamaica, meanwhile, the fragile peace has survived.

Walsh's pacifist words have been consistent with the maintenance of this peace, and are all the braver for being so. No one could be doing more than he to change our popular image of the fast bowler as stupid or uncouth.

Source: The Electronic Telegraph
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Date-stamped : 25 Feb1998 - 19:34