Cricket: Isolated Lara in the shadowlands

Tony Cozier says the vultures are gathering over the golden boy
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BRIAN LARA'S world, never stable since it was turned upside down by his phenomenal record-breaking feats in 1994, has come closer to terminal collapse in the past week.

Built around the West Indies captaincy he has coveted since he was a boy and to which he was appointed a year ago amidst a welter of controversy, it was utterly undermined last Monday when he presided over the first 5-0 drubbing the West Indies had ever endured.

That it should have been against a South African team of a complexion that made the term "whitewash" particularly appropriate and in a town once known as Verwoerdburg heightened the pain both for West Indians who had fought so long against apartheid and for non-white South Africans who had looked on Lara and his great predecessors as role models.

For Lara, it was doubly embarrassing. Four years ago, after the West Indies had been beaten by Kenya in a stunning upset, he created a furore when a journalist with a concealed recorder published his comment that he didn't mind losing to black Africans but that it was "a different matter" losing to white South Africans. "We can't stand losing to them," he said. The white South African press haven't let him forget it.

Always a magnanimous sportsman, whatever his faults, Lara was gracious in defeat. "We were thoroughly destroyed by a much better team in all departments," he said. "We must try as much as possible to learn from them." But his body language, batting form (he averaged 31 in the five Tests and has now gone 13 Tests without a hundred) and frank revelations revealed a troubled captain of a troubled team.

They would have been carefully noted by the West Indies Cricket Board, who meet on 23 February to review the disastrous tour and to plan for the imminent home confrontation against Australia, even tougher opponents. Several Board representatives had reservations about elevating Lara to the captaincy over Courtney Walsh, given Lara's chequered disciplinary record. All had to suffer the humiliation of having to reinstate him after they had dismissed him before the players' strike that jeopardised the tour and so are unlikely to have much sympathy now.

For the past 12 weeks, as the West Indies team went from one defeat to another, stories of rifts in the camp, the captain's indifference, the lack of spirit and much else besides flew back to the Caribbean. Initially, and predictably, denied by manager Clive Lloyd, many were later confirmed by Lara. "The unity needs to be much better," he said. "As a team, I'd prefer to have guys tight together off the field and things would work better on the field. Hopefully, things will improve in those areas."

It was a unity Lara did not obviously go out of his way to foster. He was seldom seen in the company of his players away from the cricket grounds, indulging a passion for golf that few of his team-mates share and, on the field, the ready smile and the Viv Richards swagger that were his hallmarks were absent. Instead, his posture was of a remote man, arms folded across his chest, rarely animated. It was a different captain to the Lara of his first series at the helm when England were beaten 3- 1 in the Tests and 4-1 in the one-day internationals in the Caribbean. He acknowledged that it is easier to maintain team spirit at home rather than on tour.

"You've got to remember we're all from different islands and slightly different backgrounds," he said, ignoring the fact that his outstanding predecessors such as Sir Frank Worrell and his present manager, Clive Lloyd, overcame such obstacles to build great teams.

"In the Caribbean, you get together for seven days to play a Test and then you head back to your different islands," he noted. "It's a shorter period, it's going to be very competitive and there's going to be great team spirit. When you go on tour for three to three-and-a-half months, you've got to live with individuals for longer periods."

Nor was he happy with the mental attitude of "the guys", his favourite expression for his players. "The management worked on the guys every day but, at the end of the day, you've got to go out there and back yourself as an individual," he said. "You can get all the advice you want off the field but, as individuals, we were a bit weak and a bit lacking in confidence in the middle. It is something that going into the nets doesn't solve."

He will include in his tour report to the Board a recommendation that they get "some sort of help outside of cricket that would make the guys more competitive upstairs so that they can be more competitive on the field". It is the kind of help recommended, but not heeded, for Lara himself by several concerned observers, most prominent among them Michael Holding.

Holding has also been among the growing numbers who believe Lara is, and always was, unsuitable for the captaincy. The problem is there is no obvious replacement. Carl Hooper, the vice-captain, has a disciplinary record as long as Lara's and has done little in the series either and, apart from Shivnarine Chanderpaul, who has had virtually no experience of captaincy at any level, and the new wicketkeeper Ridley Jacobs no one else is guaranteed a place in the team.

Jimmy Adams, the experienced, 31-year-old left-handed all-rounder whose South African tour was ended before it had begun by a freak accident on the flight out, is at present leading Jamaica in the domestic tournament. But he hasn't played a Test for two years.

Ian Bishop, another seasoned campaigner at 31, is skippering Trinidad and Tobago and made a big impression when he led the A team on a successful tour of India and Bangladesh last year. But he has lost his Test place.

Lara has given no hint of stepping down. "I'm a learning captain," he said. "This is my first overseas tour as captain. It's been a great learning experience coming to South Africa and I've learned a lot from Hansie Cronje. Hopefully, I can take that into my game and my leadership."