Embattled Lara finds right mood

West Indies 208-2 v England
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The Independent Online

There has been more talk of whitewash in this country these past few days than in a park groundsman's shed. England's captain, Michael Vaughan, has openly declared his ambition to achieve it, Brian Lara, his West Indian counterpart has studiously contemplated the possibility and yesterday announced his intention to resist it in the most sublime fashion.

Australia, even mighty Australia, failed in their attempt to inflict a 4-0 defeat on the home side last year when they lost the final match. On the first day of the Fourth Test, before torrential rain delayed play for three hours the condition of the pitch appeared to favour the batting side. By the close, the West Indies, stewarded by Lara as so often before, had confirmed it by reaching 208 for 2 at a canter. Lara and Ramnaresh Sarwan had put on 110 for the third wicket in 26 overs. It had been coming.

England bowled too short for the pitch but they did not have many options on the surface. Their great heroes of the past month suddenly looked ordinary. So tight is the grip that England's bowlers have exerted on the West Indies batting ­ reminiscent of the position exactly reversed 15 years ago ­ that there is still a sense wickets could fall at any time. But the likelihood in this match is otherwise, especially if England continue to deliver their overs at an unacceptable 13 an hour.

It is 10 years next week since Lara's epic 375 on this ground and if the pitch is not as flat as that one, nor does it exactly put a song in a bowler's heart. Lara's poor recent run ­ 100 runs in six innings in the series ­ is a thing of the past.

West Indies lost two wickets before they reached 100 and it was probably two too many. Had an appeal been upheld for an edge behind by Lara it would have meant big trouble. It would also have given England's wicketkeeping debutant, Geraint Jones, the most illustrious of first victims, though replays were utterly inconclusive, so umpire Darrell Hair was spot on.

But Lara calculated, like great players do, that there was no reason to be impeded. He was beautifully balanced, perfectly controlled and was unbeaten on 84 from 115 balls with 11 searing fours when bad light descended. While it is heresy to say so, Sarwan, unbeaten on 41, may be still easier on the eye.

It is a big Test for West Indies' captain, as he readily conceded on the eve of the match. The eventual return of his batting form was as assured as anything can be in sport, but his latest attempt to be the man to lead the West Indies from their decline is much more doubtful.

"The next five days are very important in terms of my future as captain," he said. "No team wants to go down as the first to lose all the Tests in a series in the Caribbean." There was also a suspicion that he is weary of carrying the side. His exceptional Test record is even better as captain than as one of the ranks. But he said: "You hope that when you fail somebody else will step in. We batted well in South Africa, these are proven performers and what is happening in this series is baffling."

The torrential rain over St John's yesterday was deeply disappointing for at least two reasons. First, it deprived a huge English contingent who had paid £360 for match tickets. Secondly, it need not have done so. The ground covers were woefully inadequate, but the umpires might also have given more serious consideration to what constitutes acceptable playing conditions. The International Cricket Council, in between having no comment to make on the Zimbabwean imbroglio, might like to consider checking on the standard of covers at all grounds.

For the fourth time in the series and the 10th time in 13 matches, Vaughan lost the toss. Considering what has happened hitherto he was hardly about to consider this was terminal. Pitch reading has less going for it as a scientific discipline than palmistry.

There was fascination about the changes in both sides. The tourists, having selected the same XI for three matches, made two alterations, one forced, the other by choice. Gareth Batty, the off-spinner, came into the side for Ashley Giles, who was a victim of a severe stomach bug. Presumably, Giles remains the preferred option, but Batty justified his inclusion immediately.

West Indies had lost one of their openers when Daren Ganga shuffled across to one slanting in from Andrew Flintoff and was lbw. When Flintoff limped off, temporarily, just before lunch, Batty was given an over, in line with modern practice. Until then Chris Gayle had batted with uncommon freedom ­ as though he had never heard of the word whitewash let alone given it a thought ­ but in trying to turn Batty's fifth ball to leg he offered a simple return catch.

The other England change was Jones for Chris Read, whose immaculate wicketkeeping this winter could not save him. It was conclusive proof that the art of the specialist wicketkeeper and probably the art of the wicketkeeper who bats a bit are extinct.

Jones, the first man born in Papua New Guinea (and brought up in Australia) to play a Test might find it wise to bat like Bradman if he wishes to keep his place. The odd drop behind the stumps will presumably hardly matter a jot. Vaughan promised that Jones, having displaced Read, would be given a run in the side. So he may be, though since Vaughan is not a selector it is hardly his place to make the promise.

The beleaguered West Indies made one change, introducing the one-day specialist, Ricardo Powell, for the omitted Shivnarine Chanderpaul. It was hardly a like-for-like replacement. Powell's cavalier attacking style has failed to persuade the selectors of his fitness for Test cricket until now. He played his only previous Test nearly five years ago but has appeared in 82 one-dayers. The West Indies and Lara are clearly going for broke.

St John's scoreboard

West Indies won toss

West Indies ­ First innings

C H Gayle c and b Batty 69
D Ganga lbw b Flintoff 10
B C Lara not out 86
R R Sarwan not out 41
Extras (lb1 nb1) 2
Total (for 2, 36 overs) 208

Fall: 1-33 (Ganga), 2-98 (Gayle)

50: Gayle (62 balls, 10 fours)

To bat: R L Powell, R O Hinds, R D Jacobs, T L Best, P T Collins, C D Collymore, F H Edwards.

Bowling: Hoggard 9-2-32-0 (1nb), Harmison 14-3-42-0, Flintoff 13-2-45-1, S P Jones 8-0-57-0, Batty 8-0-31-1

ENGLAND: M E Trescothick, M P Vaughan, M A Butcher, N Hussain, G P Thorpe, A Flintoff, G O Jones, G J Batty, M J Hoggard, S P Jones, S J Harmison.

Umpires: D L Hair (Aus) and Aleem Dar (Pak). Third umpire: B Doctrove.