Cricket: Lara revels in his power and influence

Cricket: The West Indies captain has demonstrated that a player with television pulling power can call the tune
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The Independent Online
THREE years ago, when Brian Lara sought the backing of his fellow West Indies players, the rebuff so shattered him it almost brought a premature end to his career.

Fed up with internal dissension on the 1995 tour of England, Lara squarely blamed the captain, Richie Richardson. At the team meeting post-mortem of the defeat in the fourth Test at Old Trafford, in which he scored the first of his three hundreds for the series, Lara told Richardson that most of the other players felt the same way, too.

When Richardson, a quiet, mild-mannered man, responded, in the words of the leaked report by the manager, Wes Hall, that he was not prepared to "bow to any egotistical people who have agendas and ambitions", Lara looked around him to the sound of silence. According to Hall, he "jumped up and stormed out of the meeting", declaring "I resign". He later told Hall: "Cricket is ruining my life."

Only the coaxing of then West Indies Cricket Board president, Peter Short, got him back into the fold after four days' absence without leave, but he was fined 10 per cent of his tour fee for leaving the team all the same.

Now fast forward to last weekend. Lara and nine of his present colleagues, some of whom were at the fateful Manchester meeting, are ensconsed at Heathrow's Excelsior Hotel, refusing to travel to Johannesburg as scheduled for a tour of special cricket and special significance until their Board agrees to meet with them to review fees and conditions.

Appointed captain in January after a lengthy, often turbulent, wait, Lara had just been sacked - along with his vice-captain, Carl Hooper - by a Board that had lost patience with the several incidents that had brought him fines, reprimands and warnings from the disciplinary committee.

The career of the most celebrated, complex and controversial cricketer of his time, holder of the world record Test and first-class scores, was in the balance. It was not the first time.

The Board, angered by the defiance of Lara and Hooper in disregarding the instructions of the Tour manager, Clive Lloyd, to fly to South Africa straight from Dhaka, where they had led the side in the Wills International Cup, felt fully justified in taking its action. It summoned Lara to Antigua to attend a hastily arranged special meeting but, although their tickets were provided, the pair stayed put at Heathrow. It was a further aggravation.

Although the passionate public, to whom the players are heroes, swamped radio call-in shows with demands for the recall of Lara and Hooper, the Board had influential support. Even the sports minister in Lara's home island of Trinidad said he should be penalised for his "disobedience". It was tantamount to standing up in Havana's Square of the Revolution with a loudspeaker and agitating for the overthrow of Fidel Castro.

This time the Board, and those who backed it, counted without the support Lara would receive from those around him - and more especially, Courtney Walsh. The former captain, as much revered in the Caribbean as at his adopted Gloucestershire, had been deposed by the Board in Lara's favour in a messy transfer of power. Only a year earlier, the two were at loggerheads to such an extent that Walsh, as captain of Jamaica, pointedly chose not to toss up with Lara for a match against Trinidad and Tobago. He sent his vice-captain instead who, the talk has it, informed Lara that "the king is on the throne".

Now Walsh is the president of the newly consolidated West Indies Players' Association with Lara as his deputy and their bond - and that of the other players - is as strong as in any well-organised labour union.

The traditional platitude that no sportsman, however great, is indispensable has been rendered obsolete by the financial control exerted by the television networks and sponsors. Consequently, the players are confident of themselves and they knew that if they held firm, the board would have to eat humble pie and revert to the status quo.

The reality was clearly spelt out by Edward Griffiths, the head of South African Broadcasting Corporation sport, which is televising the series. "We won't put up with anything but a full strength team," he said. "We owe it to our sponsors, viewers and advertisers."

With the political significance emphasised by a letter to the players from Nelson Mandela himself, hand delivered by the managing director of the United Cricket Board of South Africa, Dr Ali Bacher, in London, the die had been cast.

Within hours, the Board had dispatched one of its most identifiable and popular members, Joel Garner, the giant fast bowler of the 1980s, and the manager, Lloyd, to London to initiate negotiations. The players politely told them that only the Board president, Pat Rousseau, the tough-talking Jamaican attorney who took up the post in 1996, would do.

In quick time, Rousseau and a more high-powered delegation was on its way and, with the limp explanation that it was merely a "misunderstanding" that had kept South Africa, the Caribbean and the entire cricket world on tenterhooks for close to a week, Lara and Hooper were reinstated, the fines against the recalcitrant players, including Walsh, withdrawn and the Players' Association's demands on fees and conditions agreed to.

It was an ironic twist. The Board had gone against the better judgement of most of is members in appointing Lara. Only a few months earlier, they had actually rejected the recommendation of the selectors to install him for the tour of Pakistan and retained Walsh, a decision that had led Lara's home board in Trinidad to charge the WICB with "a calculated plot to tarnish their image and international reputation using Lara's past indiscretions as the basis for sowing the seeds of destruction". A startling accusation, it typified the insular divisions that still beset West Indies cricket at all levels.

The WICB also funded the establishment in Barbados of a permanent secretariat of the Players' Association, for years a disjointed body that represented only the current Test players. It is giving $150,000 (pounds 93,000) over a three-year period, enough to help pay for the first chief executive officer, the former Test all-rounder, team manager and chief selector, David Holford.

What the outcome has unquestionably done is strengthen Lara's position as the most influential player in the West Indies and arguably now the most influential person in West Indies cricket, period. He and the Players' Association have won a famous struggle against the Board, whose reputation and resolve had already been dented by a succession of faux pas in recent times.

One of Rousseau's first acts on assuming the presidency of what was then the West Indies Cricket Board of Control in 1996 was to delete the word "control" from its title. It was a symbolic gesture designed to erase its image as an uncaring relic of a colonial past. It can be now seen as a prophetic augury for the future.