Lara calls on exciting youngsters to lift game

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Without wishing to discredit New Zealand, who are a better side than the West Indies in both Test and one-day cricket, it is the arrival of Brian Lara's hugely talented but horribly inconsistent team which is the highlight of the summer.

Without wishing to discredit New Zealand, who are a better side than the West Indies in both Test and one-day cricket, it is the arrival of Brian Lara's hugely talented but horribly inconsistent team which is the highlight of the summer.

They may be frustrating to watch and impossible to predict but the one thing you can guarantee with the West Indies is that their cricket will be colourful and entertaining.

Lara, Ramnaresh Sarwan, Shivnarine Chanderpaul and the redoubtable Ridley Jacobs are the only members of their Test and one-day squads to have toured England previously but cricket fans can look forward to several new but equally exciting players providing them with wonderful entertainment.

Dwayne Smith is a batsman of sublime talent and Chris Gayle thumps the ball as hard as anyone in the world. Ricardo Powell and Dwayne Bravo also like to give the ball a touch.

The pace and hostility of Tino Best, Ravi Rampaul and Jermaine Lawson will keep the batsmen of England and New Zealand on their toes during the NatWest Series and they will be joined by Fidel Edwards and Pedro Collins for the four Test matches to follow.

But how the West Indies perform during the next three months will depend on how quickly these raw young cricketers adapt to English conditions and how consistently they produce the goods.

It is something that the West Indies captain is very much aware of. "Our guys need to realise that talent isn't everything," said Lara ahead of today's match against New Zealand at Edgbaston.

"A lot of our team members are full of talent. They are full of raw ability. But we have to try to turn this talent into something special," he added. "There is indiscipline, of course, but this is natural when you put a 19 or 20-year-old on an international stage. We are all trying to channel this talent in the right direction.

"It is a job for the coach, the manager and myself to do but it is difficult. My apprenticeship period in international cricket was spent watching some of the greats and learning from them how to play. We and other people are asking young guys to go out there and perform in front of 15,000 or 20,000 people when they have only played 10 first-class matches. It will take time, but it is important that they see it as something they have to do rapidly. They are working on it.

"These guys must treat this series as a learning experience even though people are expecting a lot of them," Lara said. "Unless you are a genius like Sachin Tendulkar, who has been playing since the age of 16, or a Garry Sobers, it is going to take you three or four years to become accustomed to playing at this level."

The four one-day matches the West Indies have played so far in the United Kingdom have highlighted both the strengths and the weaknesses of their cricket. In each game the tourists' strong batting line-up has found it easy to score runs but their bowling has proved to be worryingly erratic.

Ireland successfully chased 292 against them in Belfast and against Kent in their final warm-up game they conceded 38 wides and no-balls.

But, said Lara: "We are coming together. We left Ireland feeling a bit down but our performances against Sussex and Kent were very good, especially with the bat. We have some work to do with the ball but I expect the guys to buckle down and focus on keeping their foot behind the line and getting the ball in the right areas when the international matches come around.

"I expect a more professional approach on Saturday and Sunday [when the West Indies play England at Trent Bridge] but it is great to get a couple of wins. We have come here before and struggled to beat even the county teams.

"We are looking forward to making an early impression. We have tended to let the opposition make the running and then try and get back into the games. In the 14 to 16 months of my leadership, things have happened when we have been faced with the prospect of a whitewash.

"Chasing 418 against Australia [in Antigua in May 2003] was a tremendous effort for a young team and it was also important that we survived those five days in Antigua earlier this year. It seems that when sides put us under pressure, we create history."

But Lara appears to have set his heart on winning the Test series. His world record score of 400 not out in Antigua could not hide the despair of the West Indies at being walloped 3-0 by England in March and April. The defeat hurt everyone associated with cricket in the Caribbean and regaining the Wisden Trophy against England seems to be a priority.

"Of course the NatWest Series is important," said Lara, "but this a long tour and we have also got four Test matches and the ICC Champions Trophy in September. We are trying to make this six-week period an opportunity for those who are in the Test squad to get accustomed to the conditions and to get their games going for when the Test series starts."

If the West Indies are to avenge their defeat, the batsmen will need to handle Stephen Harmison appreciably better than they did earlier in the year. During the four-Test series in the Caribbean the Durham strike bowler terrorised the West Indian batsmen, who had no answer to his pace and hostility.

The New Zealand Test series was the second consecutive occasion in which Harmison proved to be the difference between the teams, but the pitches here may not offer England's fast bowlers the same assistance as in the Caribbean. This may help the West Indies to post more threatening totals.

"I feel in decent form," Lara said. "The conditions here are a bit different from the Caribbean but I have had a couple of decent innings and feel confident of getting among the runs and making a contribution to the team."

During the spring Test series spectators had to wait until the fourth Test before Lara showed his class. Even the most passionate English sports fans would rather watch the world's greatest batsman shine than see England hang on for an undeserved victory as their footballers tried to do against Portugal.