Cricket: Lara dispute puts West Indies cricket at new low

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Brian Lara's entries in the batting record books are in danger of being matched by his catalogue of indiscipline. Now he has had his nomination as the West Indies captain overruled. This is not the best of times for cricket in the Caribbean.

Brian Lara noted something self-evident here the other day. "Anything pertaining to Brian Lara gets into the news, it seems," he said, a reference to the latest of the several controversies that have enveloped him.

It concerns the West Indies Cricket Board's decision to reject its selectors' nomination of Lara as captain for the forthcoming tour of Pakistan and Sharjah, in favour of Courtney Walsh's retention, and his subsequent reported comment that he was disappointed and that it would be written in the record books as "unfortunate".

There was immediate and indignant reaction in Jamaica, Walsh's home island. The matter came to a delicate head in Kingston last weekend, when Walsh, also the Jamaica captain, pointedly sent his vice-captain out to toss with Lara, the Trinidad and Tobago skipper, in their match in the current Red Stripe Bowl tournament.

Walsh claimed he was in the loo at the time but, since he did not attend the pre-match meeting with the referee either, not many bought the explanation. It was widely interpreted as a deliberate and, as far as the crowd was concerned, deserved snub. Lara was heckled and there was delighted satisfaction when he was out first ball.

The team leaves for Pakistan on 26 October for four one-day internationals and three Tests, to be almost immediately followed by the home series against England, and a split between its respected captain and most experienced member and its best and most dynamic batsman has the potential to undermine morale completely.

The WICB president, Pat Rousseau, has sought to have an urgent meeting between the two, and Lara has moved to smooth things over, saying he had "a very quiet chat with Courtney on the issue and I am sure he is aware of the great respect I have always had for him".

The selectors' choice of Lara reflected general popular opinion outside Jamaica, but it was based more on the appreciation that Walsh, a fast bowler, now 34 and in his 13th year of Test cricket, is near the end of his career and Lara, for all his temperamental instability, is the obvious, if not only, successor.

They must have been tempted to resign en bloc after the Board's rare rebuff, but the chairman, Wes Hall, the tearaway fast bowler of the 1960s, simply commented: "The selectors nominate a captain in the full knowledge that it is the prerogative of the Board to pick that captain or any other captain".

Although Lara has been groomed for leadership since he became Trinidad and Tobago's youngest captain at 20 and led a West Indies A team to Zimbabwe a year later, the Board members are clearly wary of his list of continuing disciplinary lapses that is as long as that of his batting records.

He was fined 10 per cent of his tour fee when he temporarily abandoned the team in England in 1995; he was given a written reprimand that stipulated that any further breach "would attract the strongest condemnation" after incidents during last year's World Cup when Richie Richardson quit as captain and Andy Roberts was sacked as coach; and he was again fined 10 per cent of his match fee for turning up late prior to the first Test against Sri Lanka last June.

The one alternative to Lara when Walsh does finally call it a day would be Carl Hooper, the enigmatic 30-year-old all-rounder who, after 10 years of underachievement in international cricket, has shown increasing signs of consistency. But his status is also open to question after a report from a tournament official that, in a protest over fees, he refused to play in the Hong Kong Sixes last month, in which he was the appointed captain.

He has denied it and is threatening legal action, but the Board is still awaiting an explanation of why he turned up, did not play, and handed over the captaincy to Philo Wallace.

The inauguration of the Red Stripe Bowl, the regional one-day tournament that has introduced coloured uniforms, white balls, black sightscreens and all the standard razzmatazz of the shortened game to the Caribbean for the first time, might have been enough to deflect such negativity. Instead, it has had troubles of its own.

The stipulation of the sponsors, the brewers of the Jamaican beer, that the semi-finals and final must be played in Jamaica over the five years of its contract has predictably generated a storm of protest from the rest of the Caribbean. In addition, the Board's already shaky reputation for organisational skills was further diminished when one of the opening matches had to be postponed because the team outfits were not delivered on time and another was delayed because someone forgot to bring along the balls.

These have not been encouraging times for West Indies cricket.