Cricket: Lara plays a straight bat to barrage of gimmicks: Greg Wood reports on a master batsman ready for his debut on the county circuit

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The Independent Online
PERHAPS intoxicated by the surge in ticket sales after his record-breaking innings of 375, Warwickshire put up crush barriers yesterday as they prepared to welcome Brian Lara to Edgbaston. A wise precaution, but the only thing missing was a mob of cheering fans. Shortly before the world's most exciting batsman was due to arrive, the barriers were quietly removed.

After the pitch invasion which marked his historic performance in Antigua, Lara would surely have been glad to avoid a raucous reception, but the relief was short-lived. Before he had set two feet on the Edgbaston driveway, the waiting photographers were treating Lara like royalty, though not in the sense with which he is familiar in his native Trinidad.

Any hint of insincerity in Lara's air of bashful, bemused good humour would have been quickly exposed. Not a single crack appeared. 'I always wanted to be one of the top cricketers in the world and I wouldn't want to be in any other situation,' he said later. 'I've worked hard and given myself to the game, and this is the result.'

A secondary result was an acute outbreak of gimmickry. As a number to conjure with, 375 is far from ideal, but some sharp PR minds had clearly been hard at work. First prize went to the number plate (false, but they are working on it) attached to Lara's sponsored car: L375 ARA. A silver salver (from the club) and a heavily decorated cake (from a tabloid) quickly followed, while the ground's main scoreboard had been carefully wound forward to display the vital figure.

In the aftermath of his famous innings, Lara expressed the hope that he could continue to live 'a simple life'. At times yesterday he must have found it difficult even to breathe. Lara is not large, though his dominating strokeplay can make him seem so. The cardboard cut-out to one side of the stage was apparently life-size, but seemed rather larger than life when compared with the man himself. And while the sound system bounced Dennis Amiss's voice off the walls like a thunderclap, it struggled to raise Lara's above a murmur.

Both Lara and M J K Smith, the club chairman, were careful not to set targets for the Trinidadian's first season in country cricket. 'I believe it's very important to set small goals, and then move on to the next one,' Lara said. And his first? 'I hope to get some rest tonight, I've got a game tomorrow. And then I want to get to the ground on time.'

'We want to get him relaxed,' Smith said. 'All the attention is very welcome, but tiring, and you can't expect an immediate impact. The priority is to get him settled in.' As for the club, 'one man doesn't win things for you, but we aim to win all four (titles)'.

It is ironic that Smith, the tour manager on England's recent trip to the West Indies, has ensured that when the return series is played here next summer, the best batsman in the tourists' side will have spent a season refining his technique on English pitches. For the moment, though, the chairman is happy to plot the county's rising membership figures - approaching 8,000, 'which is as high as we've ever been'.

Not that the increase will necessarily be apparent when Lara trots out at Edgbaston today. Culture shock may finally strike when he is expected to perform to countless rows of empty seats. Lara's debut should at least ensure that the attendance climbs above 375, but only just.

(Photograph omitted)