West Indies turn to Lara for Test series against England
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.