Cricket: Gentle nudge which stirred Lara's genius

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The Independent Online
BRIAN LARA was the essence of cool at the Council House in Bristol on Tuesday where the mayor was giving a reception for the West Indies World Cup team. They were uniformly dressed in plum-coloured blazers, grey slacks, white shirts and ties, but the sleeves on Lara's blazer were just a bit too long. This is not a sartorial criticism; the point is that his shoulders are so broad that, to fit him at all, he requires a blazer made for a much taller man. He is broad-shouldered and long-legged. Apart from a chipped bone in the wrist, which has finally been given time to heal, there is nothing wrong with Lara physically. His problem has been in his mind.

In Bristol, Lara was a distant figure. He was charming and polite to the mayor when they were photographed together, but, when he talked to journalists beforehand, you felt that he preferred it only marginally to being at the dentist. I caught up with him afterwards to ask a particular question and, that done, ended a brief conversation with a banal remark. I said he must have felt relieved after he had scored 213 to win the Second Test against Australia at Sabina Park two months ago. His face contorted for a moment, as if he was unsure of his reply. "You could say that," he said. The intention was laconic, but suddenly his face broke into a broad smile. The memory had enchanted him. Here was a rare hint of strong emotion.

Only three months ago South Africa had beaten the West Indies, losing only one game in 11 Tests and one-day internationals. Lara averaged 28.50 in four Tests and 12 innings had gone by since he had scored a Test century. His mind must have been a cauldron, with self-belief clashing with uncertainty, and a reluctance to seek advice contradicting his urgent need for it. But his answer to my question confirmed he had begun to listen to advice before his remarkable renaissance against Australia.

Tony Cozier - our man in Barbados, who said Lara's 213 was "fit to rank as the most significant innings ever played by a West Indian" - was given a big hug and a thank you in public by Lara after that innings. The reason was that Lara had deliberately sought out Cozier at the end of the South African tour, and asked to talk to him. "Anybody who knows that much about West Indian cricket, you have to listen to. We had a few chats," Lara told me.

They were the first for some time. Cozier traces an old animosity back to his opinion that Carl Hooper of Guyana was better than Trinidad's Phil Simmons. Trinidadians had disapproved fiercely; Lara had stopped listening - until last January, when he sought Cozier out at Newlands in Cape Town.

They sat in the stand and Lara began to bemoan his fate: no support from the authorities, no good young players. In reply, Cozier asked him to consider his own role. He thought that Lara was getting careless at the crease; for example, he was making bad mistakes against short-pitched bowling. His body language was wrong, but, most important of all, he needed to buckle down and score runs again if he was to retain the loyalty of the West Indies' fans.

Next Lara looked to Rudi Webster, a sports psychologist who had been co-opted by the West Indies' board. "I think most importantly he tried to deal inward, where the guys were mentally weak coming out of South Africa. He worked on our mental strength. I think he did a pretty good job," says Lara. Webster worked one-to-one with Lara, concentrating on the origins of his body language rather than his batting ("I never lost belief in my batting").

Lara's 213 was followed by his legendary 153 not out to win the Third Test, and I wondered whether his success with the bat had made him a more confident captain. "What makes for captaincy, I think, is the success of the team. After the disaster in the First Test in Trinidad [lost by 312 runs], winning the Second Test - the partnership with Jimmy Adams and the bowling of Ambrose, Walsh and [Pedro] Collins - was the sort of team effort that makes captaincy much easier." That underplays the drama of the win. Lara was on probation. His own great innings, and the support from the team, sustained the most thrilling case of redemption in the history of cricket.

The most significant consequence of it was the rediscovery of passion by the home crowd - even if it did create disorder in Georgetown and Bridgetown. "After South Africa we begged the Caribbean to come out. We know how critical their support is. Although the Sir Frank Worrell Trophy went back to Australia [the series was drawn 2-2] and the one-day series was drawn, I think people are starting to believe in us again. The World Cup sets the stage for us to give something back for the support we've received."

The word is that Lara is focused on this tournament. He doesn't disagree. "We need not only myself focused, but everyone focused on achieving this goal," he says. Lara will rely on well-tried tactics. "If you look at county cricket, a lot of fast bowlers take 50 per cent of their wickets between May and June when the ball is swinging about. We haven't picked the team, but I suppose, with their experience, Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh will be our leading fast bowlers."

Despite the dramatic rediscovery of their confidence against Australia, the new mood of the West Indies is to be tested early when they play a cocky Pakistan in Bristol next Sunday. The West Indies parade some of the great stars of the tournament; Walsh and Ambrose are two of the finest fast bowlers of all-time, although their combined age is more than 70. Lara himself is over 30 now. Carl Hooper has limped away, aged 32. Even the most promising unknown, Ridley Jacobs, is 31.

Don't rule it out, but it will take another big injection of new-found self-belief from Brian Lara to drive this team into the semi-finals.


He is variously called the Little Master or Smashin' Sachin, but throughout his country he is nothing short of a god. He is the most famous person alive in India. His deeds on the field mean that he can go nowhere without being followed or mobbed, or both, but he has regularly rebutted the suggestion that he cannot lead a normal life. "That is a normal life," he says. "It has been like that since I was 16."