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Cricket: Lara rejoins the ranks of cricket's gods

The West Indies captain has regained his touch and improved his leadership skills
THE CARIBBEAN awoke yesterday morning still in a state of intoxication, literal as much as metaphorical, following the West Indies remarkable one-wicket win over Australia at Kensington Oval on Wednesday in what the Barbados Daily Nation's front-page headline called the "Test of the Century".

A celebratory motorcade was organised to accompany the triumphant team from its Bridgetown hotel to the airport as they headed for Antigua for the fourth and final match of an incredible series that starts on Saturday. One radio station recommended a public holiday on the quite logical grounds that the government had declared one after its election victory in January, and "West Indies cricket is more important than politics".

A caller to a phone-in programme was adamant that the captain, Brian Lara, deserved at least a second BMW to add to his garage for his masterful, match-winning 153 not out. Another wanted the first-innings century-maker Sherwin Campbell to be given a plot of land by the Barbados government.

A month ago, after the West Indies had fallen for their lowest Test total, 51, in the first Test in Port-of-Spain for their sixth successive defeat to add to their humiliating 5-0 whitewash in South Africa, the groundswell of opinion was that the only thing Lara deserved was the sack. Campbell, recalled to the team for the first time in a year, was out for nine and nought and his future was again in doubt.

The transformation has been so swift and dramatic as to be incredible. Even in their 71 years of fluctuating fortunes, the West Indies have never known anything like it. Few teams have.

Within a week of the first Test demise, they were comfortably winning the second by 10 wickets, inspired by an innings of 213 by Lara as devastating and critical as Tuesday's that earned them a second successive victory over opponents justifiably recognised as contemporary Test cricket's strongest team.

The change has corresponded directly with the transformation of Lara the batsman and Lara the man. Before his Kingston double-century, 15 Tests had passed without the gifted left-hander scoring a hundred. In that period, he averaged 35.42 against an overall 50 while others like India's Sachin Tendulkar and the Waugh twinswere enhancing their claims as the game's best batsmen.

Lara seemed to have lost his focus and appetite for the big scores that he so regularly reeled off in the years when his 375 against England in the Antigua Test and his 501 for Warwickshire against Durham became new records for Test and first-class cricket in the space of six weeks in 1994.

Following two modest Tests against New Zealand in the Caribbean in 1996, he complained: "Their sort of attack was not a great motivator." It spoke of a dangerous arrogance. He neglected his cricket, paid more attention to his golf - and paid the price.

The Board squarely blamed him for "weakness in leadership that contributed to the poor performance in South Africa", told him he needed to make "significant improvements in his leadership skills" and put him on probation as captain for only two Tests of the current series.

As he himself acknowledged, it was the jolt Lara needed.

"You've got to realise that no one individual could be responsible for something as disastrous as South Africa," he said. "I've played a part and I must hold some responsibility but I've improved as a person, even outside of cricket, living life day-to-day, and that's most important. As you get older, you get wiser, I suppose," he added, just over a month short of his 30th birthday on 2 May.

Those close to the team corroborate his self-appraisal. They say Lara is more at ease and involved with his players than he has ever been, encouraging suggestions, listening to problems, advising and cajoling them.

Following the South African debacle, Lara asked the Board to appoint a sports psychologist.

"Maybe we need some sort of help outside of cricket that would make the guys more competitive upstairs so that they can be competitive on the field," he said at the time. When Michael Holding suggested similar help for Lara two years ago, he was pilloried. In these parts, such help is viewed with suspicion. The attitude may have changed since Dr Rudi Webster was taken on board prior to the Australian series.

He is a 59-year-old Barbadian, a medical graduate from Edinburgh University and one-time fast bowler for Warwickshire with an analysis of 12.4-7-6- 7 against Yorkshire at Edgbaston in 1964 which still stands in Wisden in the "remarkable analyses" category. He has kept close to West Indies' cricket since managing the team during Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket when the present manager, Clive Lloyd, was the captain.

"It's as though we've gone full circle," Webster, who prefers the title "performance consultant", said. Lara recognises him as "a positive influence" - but there has been no more positive influence on the people of the West Indies, to whom cricket is virtually a religion, than Lara himself.

Ken Jones, page 24