Cricket: A turn for the worse - Brian Lara - A break in production for the run machine

Millstones of '97: From the batting idol who remains an enigma to the fighter cornered by calamity
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The Independent Online
Nothing epitomised Brian Lara's troubled year more than its finale. It was the concluding match of the Champions' Trophy in Sharjah, his last international innings of 1997 and West Indies had managed an electrifying start against England.

Lara, the most sublimely gifted batsman on the planet, the holder of the game's two most cherished records, the player who had looked as though his runs accrued as of divine right, had just come in and essayed a vaguely uncertain stroke against Mark Ealham. It was nothing to be alarmed about, the sort of waft and miss that all players can and do make at the outset of an innings. But then, naively, bizarrely, Lara dragged his back foot forward to the line and Alec Stewart, England's wicketkeeper, whipped off the bails.

Such a dismissal would have created a certain amount of hilarity among the denizens of the Backwoods Clodhoppers' Second XI. In Lara's case it merely added sustenance to the theories of where it had all gone wrong for him. It may seem outrageous to be discussing the decline of a batsman who has a Test average of above 50 and a one-day average in the mid-40s but of his waning influence there is no doubt.

"Part of the difficulty is that having scored 375 and 501 [the Test and first-class records, respectively] people expect him to do it all the time," said Larry Gomes, a fellow Trinidadian, West Indies and left-handed batsman who watched his younger compatriot grow to batting maturity. "That isn't possible, but equally there's no use pretending all's right with him. I don't think it's technical because he still looks a great player. It's in the head. Brian's got to get focused again."

Not that it is only a case of failing to meet silly public expectations. Since the start of West Indies' lost series against Australia in November, 1996, Lara's average has been 34.26 and he has made three centuries in his 27 innings, paltry returns for such a magnificent strokemaker. He failed in all six Test innings on the recent Pakistan tour.

"He has made public mistakes, said things and maybe done things in a way I'm sure he regrets," said Gomes, who was his island's most prolific batsman before Lara and knows his foibles. "But he will have learned and he thrives under pressure. This isn't the end of him by a long way and against England on our pitches I can see him scoring a lot of runs again."

Gomes has one crucial proviso. He advised the Caribbean selectors to make Lara captain, as Warwickshire have done next summer, citing tactical acumen and his tendency to thrive under pressure. "When I was coaching at Trinidad a couple of summers ago he certainly responded. Now is the time for him to take the helm."

Lara's character has been scrutinised of late as much as his form. When he first made a global impact, his talent seemed to be matched by an innate humility. Even as late as 1995 when he made three delectable centuries in the series against England and had already been the double record holder for two years he played down his talents. In the pavilion at Trent Bridge one sun-kissed Saturday evening after a 152 which was never less than gorgeous, he said: "I don't think I'm a great player yet," and sounded as though he meant it.

But on that same tour there were rumours, later substantiated, of discord and threatened walk-outs and Dermot Reeve, his captain in his first, all- conquering spell at Warwickshire, gave his personality a working over in his book. Far from humble Lara has lately been perceived as swaggeringly arrogant. Though Reeve still conceded last week: "That's all in the past and as I've said he's the best player I've ever seen."

Gomes remains coolly convinced that Lara will be back. On the issue of the captaincy being significant there is evidence. Last March in Barbados, Lara led West Indies in the absence of the injured Courtney Walsh. On a dodgy pitch he scored 45 off 67 balls in the second innings but India still needed only 120 to win. Lara held his nerve, placed his field and marshalled his bowlers expertly. India were bowled out for 81. It was a rare highlight in an otherwise grim year.