As inevitable as they are, Brian Lara is adamant that reminders of his first calamitous overseas series as West Indies captain, in South Africa five years ago, are irrelevant to his first series here in his second stint at the helm which starts at the Wanderers today.
Lara made only one, pointed reference yesterday to the shambles that led to the 5-0 thrashing his disjointed team suffered in the 1998-99 season from opponents led by the late and, in many areas here, lamented Hansie Cronje. "There is no doubt we're better prepared," Lara said. "We spent a month playing international cricket before this tour, not a week sitting in a hotel room in London."
This time, they have come from a challenging but victorious series in Zimbabwe. In contrast, the previous tour was preceded by a players' strike in London that was only resolved after a week's hard bargaining with the West Indies Cricket Board.
Within a year, Lara quit the captaincy, sought psychiatric help and took four months away from the game. Reinstated in place of Carl Hooper last March for the home series against Australia and Sri Lanka, Lara returned wiser and more mature than the temperamental character whose earlier leadership was limited almost exclusively around his brilliant batting.
He has gathered around him a group of young, inexperienced but talented players and is intent on moulding them into a team that would guarantee his legacy to West Indies cricket goes beyond his many batting records.
After defeat to the all-conquering Australians in the Caribbean in his first three Tests back, Lara has led the West Indies to two series wins, over Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe, as well as a victory in the last Test against Australia. But their record overseas is still abysmal, 26 losses against five victories since 1997, and South Africa, ranked only behind Australia in the International Cricket Council's Test table, remain formidable foes.
They are led for the first time in a home series by Graeme Smith, the 23-year-old who has made such an impact since he became Test cricket's youngest captain when he replaced Shaun Pollock after South Africa's World Cup exit in March.
Smith also played down references to happenings five years ago. "The South African side in that series was very stable and they really knew each other very well," he said. "We've got a few young guys who are trying to find their feet in the team."
SOUTH AFRICA (from): G C Smith (capt), H H Gibbs, J A Rudolph, J H Kallis, N D McKenzie, M van Jaarsveld, ÝM V Boucher, S M Pollock, A J Hall, R J Peterson, M Ntini, A Nel, G J Kruger.
WEST INDIES (from): B C Lara (capt), C H Gayle, W W Hinds, D Ganga, S Chanderpaul, R R Sarwan, ÝR D Jacobs, V C Drakes, M Dillon, F H Edwards, C D Collymore, D Mohammed, R Rampaul, C S Baugh.
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