Cricket: Lara's team theme

Five Tests in South Africa will stretch the West Indies' new spirit. By Tony Cozier
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The Independent Online
IT TOOK a personal plea from President Nelson Mandela, numerous telephone calls from various prime ministers, a succession of flights between London, Dhaka, Johannesburg and Antigua, and days of tense negotiations which would have tested the patience of Kofi Annan to get them here. So now, as they prepare for the First Test against South Africa in Johannesburg on Thursday, the pressure on the West Indies cricketers to perform, always fierce, is verging on the intolerable.

Ali Bacher, the omnipresent evangelist for South African cricket, hopes Brian Lara and the other big names - Carl Hooper, Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose - on the first full, official West Indies tour here, will "provide role models for the black youngsters who have begun to flood into the game in ever-increasing numbers". The passionate public back home, largely supportive of the strike, are concerned only with results and will be far less understanding if the players' success around the bargaining table is not matched on the pitch in the five Tests and seven one-day internationals.

It is a situation fully understood by Lara. "We appreciate what the expectations are but we are more determined than ever to meet them," he said. "What we've gained [from the stand-off with the Board], and it is very important, is a tighter team unit. Those five or six days in London made us a very close unit. This is an area where we have to improve to beat South Africa, whose team unity is excellent."

It is a harmony not always evident in West Indies teams, comprised as they are of players of different races and backgrounds from the scattered, insular territories of the Caribbean. Less than a year ago the public perception was of a rift between Lara and Walsh over the captaincy. Two weeks ago Walsh, and the rest of the team, stood united over Lara's reinstatement.

The South African attitude is a product of similar circumstances. Ostracised for so long, they developed a strong bond. They are not easily beaten and Bacher's political platitudes will mean little to his players once the first ball is bowled.

The West Indies have passed this way before. Clive Lloyd, the hard-pressed manager, cultivated the strongest and most cohesive West Indies team of all time out of the experience of Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket, which was ex-communicated by the establishment. Even the "rebel" West Indies teams to South Africa in the mid-1980s, little more than a collection of has-beens and never-weres, established such a strong bond that they shocked their hosts by sharing, and then winning, their two series.

Whether Lara, Walsh and the other senior men can maintain that essential commitment against aggressive, close-knit opponents on their home turf is another matter. After winning wherever they went for 15 years, the West Indies have had a difficult time away from home in recent times.

They could only share series in India in 1994 and England in 1995, lost in Australia in 1996-97 and, a year ago, were not so much beaten in Pakistan as utterly humiliated, trounced by an innings in two Tests and by 10 wickets in the other.

The triumph over England in the Caribbean that followed was an immediate tonic and England's subsequent victory over South Africa in the summer has prompted West Indian optimism. It has to be tempered by the realisation that only the indomitable Australians have managed to win a Test series here in the seven years since South Africa's release from sporting solitary confinement.

On the surface, the teams are evenly matched. Both depend on a pair of outstanding fast bowlers to dismiss the opposition, Walsh, now only two wickets away from passing Malcolm Marshall's West Indies Test record of 376, and Curtly Ambrose, another 300-plus man, for the visitors, Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock for South Africa.

The West Indies possess the more dashing batsmen in Lara, Carl Hooper and the whirlwind openers Philo Wallace and Clayton Lambert. But the home team bat more consistently and further down.

A more significant factor, however, is likely to be the will to win. In light of recent events, the West Indies need success even more than their single-minded opponents.

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