It is a role to which Brian Lara has become accustomed during his lengthy career in a failing team and the left-handed maestro found himself having to fill it once more as the West Indies faltered on the opening day of the third Test here in Barbados yesterday.
In the previous Test in his home town, Port of Spain, he came to the crease at 13 for 2 inside the first half-hour and reeled off a brilliant 196. Yesterday, he came in at 12 for 3, after the openers, Chris Gayle and Wavell Hinds, and the second Test century-maker, Ramnaresh Sarwan, were removed by South Africa's new ball pair, Andre Nel and Makhaya Ntini.
An hour after lunch, Lara was 60 and in dominant form, his captain Shivnarine Chanderpaul 43 and the West Indies 118 for 3.
On a hard, true pitch, offering pace and bounce missing from those in the first two Tests, Chanderpaul seemed to gain the early advantage by winning the toss and choosing to bat for the third time in the series. But Nel and Ntini quickly put them under pressure with fast, controlled bowling.
Gayle, the tall left-hander who was dismissed for six and one in the second Test, failed to score this time, finding a tentative edge to Nel's fifth ball of the innings.
Hinds, his left-handed partner, fell in Ntini's third over, taken at first slip off a defensive stroke for one. When Sarwan's careless cut off Nel six balls later presented a face-high catch to Ashwell Prince, the West Indies had surrendered the early advantage and needed Lara and Chanderpaul, their two most experienced players with 196 Tests between them, to rescue the innings. Lara announced himself with a trademark backfoot boundary through the covers while Chanderpaul, the fourth left-hander in the top five, offered him solid support.
In hot weather, Graeme Smith, the South Africa captain, used five bowlers in an unsuccessful attempt to dislodge the pair before lunch when both were 23 with the total 60 for 3.
Lara announced a change of tempo after lunch with a crisp cover driven four off Ntini and he continued to find the boundaries, adding 37 in the first hour after lunch.
West Indies made two changes from the team that lost by eight wickets in the second Test. The fast bowler Fidel Edwards replaced his injured brother Pedro Collins, and the all-rounder Ryan Hinds took over from Donovan Pagon.
South Africa, up 1-0 in the four-match rubber, chose not to bring in their pace bowler and former captain Shaun Pollock who joined up with the squad on Monday. "Shaun is not yet 100 per cent, so we didn't want to risk him," Smith said at the toss.
South Africa made only one change, replacing injured batsman Jacques Rudolph with Boeta Dippenaar, who scored 184 over the weekend in a warm-up match.