Cricket: Leader Lara goes his own way and passes important first test

West Indies' new captain was under the microscope but was bold in securing a vital series victory. Tony Cozier reports
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NO West Indies captain has been more diligently groomed for the post, more actively promoted for it or more openly coveted it. None came to it by a longer or more contentious route. So how has Brian Lara fared in the first series at the helm? The simple answer is that he won.

As Mike Atherton, his beleaguered counterpart, and Richie Richardson and Courtney Walsh, Lara's predecessors, have painfully discovered, it is the one criterion by which all captains are ultimately judged. In Lara's case, instant success, even a narrow 2-1 advantage, was more critical.

The West Indies had just returned from a disastrous series in Pakistan, heavily beaten in all three Tests, when his appointment instead of Walsh was confirmed in early January. Walsh himself and the tour manager Clive Lloyd, the former revered captain, spoke of a lack of pride and commitment in the team. There were snide suggestions that Walsh and Lara were at loggerheads and that Lara (average 21.5) did not pull his weight.

Lara's disciplinary record was such that there were serious doubts whether he was temperamentally capable of handling the responsibility. His publicised tantrums had brought him before the West Indies Cricket Board's disciplinary committee four times in the past couple of years. Lara was under the microscope and he knew it.

In the past two and a half months he has not put a foot wrong off the field and not much on the field either. A smile has seldom been far from his handsome face, he has been co-operative and comfortable with the media and clearly at ease with his players.

Realising the value of experience around him, he courted Walsh when the displaced captain took a week deciding whether he would continue. He personally emphasised to Curtly Ambrose his essential worth when rumours were flying around that the great fast bowler was about to retire. He depended heavily on them, repeatedly approaching both during an over with a suggestion or a pat on the back and they never let him down.

With seemingly insignificant suggestions Lara encouraged his newer players, too. When Philo Wallace, the powerful opener was out for a dazzling 92 in the final Test, he returned to a standing ovation from around the ground.

Lara, next man in, pointedly waited on the dressing-room steps, himself applauding, so that Wallace, in his third Test, had the stage all to himself.

On the field he has not been tactically inhibited by the newness of his assignment, sometimes to the point of obvious error. But, as always, he has been prepared to be guided by instinct rather than orthodoxy.

He baffled in Port of Spain with his use of Kenny Benjamin and Nixon McLean to open the bowling rather than Ambrose and Walsh. In Georgetown, his delay in calling up Ambrose for the second new ball with England on 84 for 7 was hard to fathom as was his neglect in Bridgetown of Carl Hooper against Graham Thorpe, who had not handled him capably in the earlier Tests. Within in a couple of overs, Thorpe was edging Hooper to slip but by then he had a 104 to his name.

But he relied on spin more than any recent West Indies skipper has done, a legacy of his upbringing in Trinidad. The upshot was that Hooper's off- breaks claimed more wickets in the series than any West Indian spinner since Lance Gibbs 21 years earlier and the leg-spinner Dinanath Ramnarine enjoyed an encouraging introduction to Test cricket. It has given the attack a refreshing balance and we can expect more of the same.

Lara would have appreciated the luxury of being able to blood a few younger players but the object, first and foremost, was to win. He has done that.