Cricket: Middle men the bonus for Lara

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THE West Indies reached what had become forgotten territory here yesterday. They had to go back over a year, 13 Tests ago, to Sabina Park against India, to find so comfortable a position in which they passed 300 with as few as four wickets down.

They did not make the most of it, but at least on a dry pitch already showing signs of disintegration, the foundation was there for their bowlers to build on. It was imperative that they did. To have faltered for the 200s that have become habitual would have put them under the same intense pressure they faced in the two Tests in Port of Spain and three late last year in Pakistan. And it would have boosted England's spirits following the loss of what is perceived as a critical toss.

The effort once more emphasised the odd shape of the West Indies batting - no head, no tail, only middle. Sherwin Campbell and Stuart Williams have been persevered with for 17 consecutive Tests and have put together only three partnerships better than 50. It places unconscionable responsibility on Brian Lara to have so regularly to come in with the opposition cock- a-hoop and their bowlers still fresh.

This time, Lara responded positively as England were hindered by Alec Stewart's rare miss at second slip, when Shivnarine Chanderpaul was nine and the total would have been 55 for 3, and by their gamble of relying on only two fast bowlers. The early moisture on Friday prompted life and movement for the admirable Angus Fraser and Dean Headley, but Mike Atherton had no Andrew Caddick. Mark Butcher is no more than a make-do substitute.

Lara was quick to identify his opponents' predicament and quick to seize the moment. He has gone through comparatively lean times in the past year and, now captain, has spoken of changing his approach, given his essential role in such a suspect batting side. It smacked of uncharacteristic negativity, but thankfully, it has not taken long to change.

His calculated assault after lunch on the opening day completely altered the tenor of the contest. In the two hours before the break, the West Indies had eked out 61 runs off 26 overs. The first hour after resumption, with Chanderpaul's miss out of the way, the two left-handers added 51 and England did not know where to place their fielders or who to bowl next.

The West Indies desperately need Lara in this frame of mind and form. As he did with Chanderpaul, he pulls his partners along in his slipstream. England have known since their encounters four years ago that he is their biggest hurdle. They know it even more so now.

Apart from their left- handedness, Lara and Chanderpaul make a stark contrast in batsmanship. Lara is the gifted strokeplayer, capable of tearing the opposition to pieces and changing the course of a match in a session. Chanderpaul is more limited, less authoritative, more vulnerable at the start of an innings, as England have found to their cost.

Chanderpaul is the devil to remove once set. Unfortunately, the same attribute continues to elude the enigmatic Carl Hooper, who once more wasted his wicket with a wanton stroke just when the West Indies needed him most.

Henry Blofeld, page 23