Cricket: Lara driven to claim captaincy that will make or break him

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The Independent Online
Brian Lara's elevation to the captaincy of the West Indies has given the multi-talented batsman his biggest challenge yet in a glittering career that has lost a little of its gloss lately.

It is an ironic twist of fate that has finally brought Brian Lara to the West Indies captaincy when the fortunes of the team, the game in the region as a whole, and the player himself are at as low an ebb as they have ever been.

"It is a very tricky seat to be in at this present moment in West Indies cricket," was Lara's succinct comment when his appointment for the forthcoming home series against England was announced in Antigua yesterday.

Distinguished by both his sublime batting talent and his intellectual grasp of the game since he was a boy, he was the natural leader of every team he played in. He captained the West Indies team at the first youth World Cup in 1988 and the A team to Zimbabwe aged 21, and was the youngest skipper of his native Trinidad and Tobago at 20.

All things being equal, he would have been elevated to the most important office in West Indies cricket some time ago.

Instead, he became overwhelmed by the enormity of his own achievements - his world record Test and first-class scores in those incredible six weeks of 1994 - and was so distracted by the resulting expectations that he lost his way and the confidence of the powers that be.

He has been the vice-captain on several occasions and, in his one and only Test at the helm - when Courtney Walsh, whom he now succeeds, was injured - he led the West Indies to victory over India in Barbados last April.

If opinion has been divided over his temperamental suitability to such a responsible position, it is virtually unanimous that he has no equal among West Indians as a strategist.

It is a realisation that made Lara covet the job even more. He has had a long, impatient and often turbulent wait. His focus has been distorted, he has turned more and more to golf for his motivation and his Test average over the past year has declined to a modest 36 an innings.

Now that he has been chosen as captain, his new job presents a challenge even more daunting than that which confronted him in the heady aftermath of his phenomenal record-breaking just over three years ago.

Then the demanding task of maintaining such heavy-scoring excellence was personal; now the job is leading a revival and is more global.

West Indians have had their pride in the one field of endeavour in which they led the world severely damaged by the repeated collapses of their team. They are desperate for someone to lead them back to the days of plenty, as Frank Worrell did in the 1960s and Clive Lloyd in the 80s.

In the past two years, they have witnessed 15 years of invincibility ended by Australia, they have suffered the indignity of defeat by Kenya in the World Cup, and their worst fears for the future have recently been confirmed by the simultaneous 3-0 whitewashes handed out to their Test team in Pakistan and their A team, the hopeful reserves, in South Africa.

In that time, they have changed captains, managers, coaches and Board presidents. Lloyd has been recalled to help stimulate the revival, but the results have been ever more depressing.

So in comes Lara, a replacement for Courtney Walsh, a solid, committed, long-serving servant of the West Indies.

Depending on your viewpoint, and, significantly, where you come from in these insular territories, Lara is either the Prince of Port-of-Spain, the knight in shining armour who has come to the rescue, or the Prima Donna, whose immaturity will further deflate morale.

Like so many mercurial talents, Lara attracts such divided assessments.

No less a judge than Sir Gary Sobers has continuously stood in his corner and strongly argued the case for his promotion. Others with equally respected views, such as Michael Holding, have been more disapproving of his past conduct.

The Board itself wrestled long over his status, wary about the disciplinary indiscretions that have caused it to issue him four fines and written warnings in the last two years. It overturned the selectors' original nomination for him to be the captain on the ill-starred Pakistan tour, and has itself done an about-turn less than six months on.

There are doubts, and divisions, that Lara will have to overcome quickly. He will have an immediate test of his acceptance in the first Test in the cauldron of Sabina Park, where 14,000 Jamaicans are unlikely to be pleased with the ousting of the worthy Walsh, a Jamaican.

Wasim Akram, the former Pakistan captain, has noted Lara's abundant self- confidence and believes that, as captain, it will rub off on a team that lacks it at present.

David Gower's view is that the captaincy will inspire Lara to regain his form as a batsman and be an incentive for him to convince everyone "how wronged he has been".

As far as West Indians are concerned, the only convincing they will accept at present is through results. They will soon know if their most celebrated, and controversial, cricketer can provide them.