Cricket: England must beware a rejuvenated Lara

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With the first Test of the winter series starting on Thursday, England's optimism is running high. The West Indies have never looked more in turmoil, we are told, but their new captain, Brian Lara, could once again be a large thorn in English sides.

Here we go (again). As England's first Test of the winter approaches, the air, and in particular the airwaves, are full of hypeful noises regarding our chances of prevailing in the West Indies. England seem unusually settled and robust; the West Indies are in tatters, and there is an infectious feeling that this time England might - should - succeed. Sky television has been running brash trailers in which a comically sombre Ian Botham proclaims his calm belief (against the ambiguous background of Mozart's Requiem) in England's winning chance.

This is clearly more than wishful thinking: it is a sales pitch. And I have no wish to sound unsporting or unpatriotic, but the rest of us might do well to approach the tour in a rather more sanguine mood. Yes, the once-invincible West Indies have been fractious and unsuccessful in recent years (they were humiliated in the World Cup by Kenya, and have suffered series losses against Australia and Pakistan). But the fact remains that in their last four trips to the Caribbean England have won two Test matches and lost - ahem - 12. We need, to say the least, to hold on to our hats.

The main reason for caution, however, can be summed up in two short words: Brian Lara. Even the most gung ho arguments list him as the great unknown quality in this forthcoming series. If he catches fire, the line runs, then so too might his team. If he fails (as, recently, he often has) then England ought to triumph. This is a plausible enough argument, except for one thing. Lara is anything but an unknown quantity. He is about as thoroughly proven a star as it is possible to be. And one thing in particular is beyond dispute: he simply loves England bowling.

When England last visited his princedom by the sea he flicked us off his hip and stroked us through the covers with one of the finest and most nonchalant exhibitions of batting anyone has ever seen. He came to Warwickshire fresh from one world record (375) and immediately set another one (501). He has had a grumpy couple of years and has behaved petulantly at times. But now, at last, he is king. He still has a batting average of 52, which is far higher than England's top player (Thorpe with 42) but not, as it happens, the best in his team (Jimmy Adams has an average of 56).

The reason why Lara has underperformed in the last two years is not a mystery, either. The West Indies is unique among the world's leading cricket cultures in that it is not a country: it can call on regional, but not national pride. Regional grievances can play a strong hand: a great deal of the bad feeling over Lara's assumption of the captaincy can be put down to the fierce rivalries between Trinidad, Jamaica and Barbados. The result has been a team that lacked cohesion on the simplest, most personal level: the players simply couldn't stand one another.

It isn't easy to forge a winning mentality in such a poisoned atmosphere. During the last World Cup you only had to see the old hands (like Ambrose) lording it over the new recruits, or watch the captain, Richardson, staring gloomily into the middle distance, or gape at the way the players avoided each other on aeroplanes, to know that this team was having absolutely no fun at all.

There are signs that this may have changed. The chit-chat from the Caribbean all indicates that Lara the captain is serious, purposeful, committed and quite unlike Lara the captain-in-waiting. He is undoubtedly every bit as cocky as his cricketing genius entitles him to be; he made no secret of his vexation at playing second fiddle to the Richardsons and Ambroses; he was the prince who wanted to be king, and it is clear in retrospect that he laid down his cards wrongly and too early, expressed his impatient ambition too soon. But no one should be surprised if under his leadership, the West Indies galvanise themselves into an exhilarating force once again. It is rather important (putting England's immediate interests aside for a moment) that they do. World cricket without a powerful West Indies would be a sad, one-dimensional sort of game.

All sporting predictions are idle; that is why they are fun. Lara might fail; England might contrive a "whitewash." But England's problem, and the reason why the present optimistic stirrings need to be tempered, remains the same: we do not have a bowler Lara will fear. We have no Warne, no Donald, no Ambrose, no Waqar - no one who can rip an innings apart and change the course of a game. The most serious question facing David Lloyd and Mike Atherton this week is how they are going to get him out. Let us hope they have a plan. All the signs at present are that they have not yet quite decided who the bowlers are going to be. It is English strategy at its keenest: not for the first time, we're crossing our fingers and hoping for the best.