Lara backs Australia to pile on pressure

Legend believes home advantage will be key – and a battle of pace not spin
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The Independent Online

Brian Lara has plenty to keep him occupied right now, including a return to the crease, a foray into the world of coaching and a long-distance observer's interest in the latest attempt by West Indies cricket to recapture past glories. But one of the game's greatest-ever batsmen is not too busy to spare a few thoughts on what might happen Down Under over the next few weeks.

Perhaps the fact that he took 775 Test runs off their bowlers in two world record innings has something to do with it, but Lara clearly has a soft spot for England. And yet, while his heart says that Andrew Strauss's team will successfully defend the Ashes this winter, his head tells him Australia are favourites to recapture that little urn.

Everyone in cricket has an opinion on what may happen once the phoney war ends this week – and a majority of pundits on this side of the world seem to think an away win is more probable than possible. For Lara, though, home advantage appears to be the crucial factor.

"Englishmen might not like this but I believe that if you put a horse through tough races and then bring him back to conditions he likes, he is going to excel once more," said the 41-year-old former West Indies captain on a brief visit to London, where he was singing the praises of Trinidad and Tobago as tourist destinations. "That's what I feel about Australia. They lost in England and they've just lost in India but they are back home for this series and I believe they are going to be peaking at just the wrong time for England.

"I think maybe 2-1 to Australia with a victory for England in Sydney. But perhaps people will be calling me before too long to say I was wrong. I wouldn't be unhappy about that. In fact, I would be very happy."

Like almost everyone, Lara believes Graeme Swann can be a big weapon for the visitors and, for that reason, he assumes Australia will hope to make the series a battle of the pace bowlers. "What Australia prepare pitch-wise is going to dictate how well Swann does," he says. "If I was them I would prepare fast, bouncy tracks and back my guys – the Pontings, Clarkes and Husseys – to see off the English pacemen. Australia's main strength is to wear the opposition down when they are batting, to pile on the pressure."

No chat with any Caribbean cricket legends, from Sir Garfield Sobers onwards, lasts for long before attention turns to West Indian woes. Everyone seems to blame everyone else for sticking heads in sand during the good times while failing to plan for the future. But whatever mistakes have been made in his home region, Lara reckons they are not being repeated Down Under despite Australia's slide to fifth place in the Test rankings. "The cricketing world caught up with West Indies and now it has happened to Australia," he says. "But I'm convinced they are going to remain very competitive.

"Our decline was self-induced. We helped to dismantle our cricket from the top. It was not necessarily that we would have stayed at No 1 but we did nothing to ensure that we remained competitive. We did nothing to solidify our position near the top.

"And even today you hear about an 'elite centre' for cricket in Barbados. When you are talking about elite centres and academies you need to go and see what they have in Australia, or go to Loughborough here in England and see what is happening. You can't just have a façade and call it an academy unless you have everything in there that is going to help any young cricketer to believe in himself and enhance his talent."

Before long, Lara will be passing on tips to the brightest batting talent – but in Zimbabwe, rather than the West Indies. So how come not a lot closer to home? "I've never been asked," he says, threatening to open up the can of worms that is Caribbean cricket politics. But then the decision is made to play a back-foot defensive. "I don't want to get involved [in talking about it]. West Indies cricket is still right here [pointing to his heart] first and foremost. I was intimately involved, now I'm not and I'm just on the outskirts, looking and praying that things can turn around.

"My heart is with West Indies cricket so obviously I would love [to be a part of it], but you can ask where is Sir Viv Richards, Sir Garfield Sobers, Wes Hall, Richie Richardson? So you may be asking me the same question in five or 10 years. I'm optimistic but you never know. Maybe my services won't be needed."

For now, though, Zimbabwe calls. Three years after retiring from international cricket, and only nine years from posting an altogether different half-century, Lara has been playing Twenty20 for the Southern Rocks in Harare. And he does not rule out playing in the Indian Premier League.

"I've stayed fit, played a few games [he made 37 off 32 balls for MCC in a T20 match against Pakistan at Lord's in June] and I'm still enthused by the game," says Lara. "And, going forward, I will spend two one-week periods with the Zimbabwe national team, and their national batsmen, as they prepare for a return to Test cricket."