Lara the leader without followers

NatWest Series: Master craftsman opens up to give his team a flying start but then the familiar failings return

If the NatWest Series needs anything, it is runs. Indeed on the neediness scale of one to 10 it has probably reached 10. The highest total of this summer's competition was reached yesterday. It was a meagre 216, or slightly more than four an over.

They score at that rate in Test cricket these days, which is bad news for the one-day game. It was not invented for prolonged spells of bowling ascendancy, otherwise there would have been no point in it ever leaving the laboratory.

Still, the highest total in this series before yesterday's game was 147, so maybe it is at last taking off. By the final next Saturday somebody might stir themselves to reach the heights of 300. Or not. It is that kind of season.

For a while yesterday, especially when Brian Lara was at the crease, West Indies looked capable of something mountainous, and then New Zealand looked equally capable of at least rushing to the target in a blaze of strokeplay. Neither ambition was achieved.

For the West Indies, it was familiar territory. But then all territory from sunlit uplands to the dark recesses below is familiar to them, though mostly the latter. Every time they seem to have turned a corner, they hit a brick wall, and they have a renewable return season ticket on the sublime to ridiculous line.

Last winter, at the lowest of many low points in South Africa they were all out for 54, yet later in the series sailed past a target of 297. Later on, they seemed to have the measure of England in the one-day series in the Caribbean before being held to an honourable 2-2 draw, but then made a big deal of defeating Bangladesh.

Such fitfulness creates permanent uncertainty, which revealed itself again yesterday as they walked out to bat at Sophia Gardens after being inserted. There was Chris Gayle, their regular, intermittently destructive opening batsman, and on his shoulder was the best batsman in the world, who is not their regular opening batsman.

Indeed, it is almost five years since Lara last opened for the one-day side (when he did it four times) and 10 since he regularly batted there. Only last week, he suggested England were misguided in pairing Marcus Trescothick and Michael Vaughan as openers because they were putting all their best fruit at the top of the basket, where they could be all too easily plucked. The best players, he implied, needed some protection before coming in to take advantage as the white ball, so awkward early on, started to go softer.

Yet here he was contradicting his own advice, perhaps to be seen to be taking responsibility, perhaps once more for short-term expediency. Shivnarine Chanderpaul, who has opened more than he has batted anywhere else and has an average of 40 doing so, was demoted to No 4.

Lara had to succeed. He did, though it was only up to a point. For the time he was in, extravagantly handsome in his shot-making, West Indies were sure of a commanding total. If the footballer Thierry Henry, featuring in a currently voguish TV advertisement, still wants to know what va-va-voom is here was his answer. Lara could have been the man who put the va-va into voom in French or any other language - and nor was he saving his best for the commercials.

He was dropped at 26, a difficult chance at point that Paul Collingwood might have caught with his eyes shut, but that poor Craig McMillan could merely parry. How the Kiwis might have rued that. But at 58, made at a run a ball and not long after reaching his fifty with a straight six, he received a bouncer from Chris Cairns. Next ball, Cairns unleashed his demonic slower ball and Lara pushed at it early, looping it to mid-on. Stephen Fleming stretched his legs and eventually tumbled forward to claim the catch. It was worth the effort.

With Lara gone, there was always the chance that West Indies might self-destruct. They moved, however, from 83 for 1 to 180 for 3, ready for the final charge. Gayle and Chanderpaul had gone but Ramnaresh Sarwan was present and correct. They then self-destructed, allying some inept running with some lackadaisical stroke making, which down the ages has generally been a pretty potent combination in assuring downfall. Nobody, not even Sarwan, showed the inclination to see it out.

Like England, West Indies have shown a recent tendency to lose when batting first and this was not designed to make them feel at ease with themselves holding a bat in their hands early in a match. Their bowling had to demonstrate a discipline not present in their batting. Jermaine Lawson's first delivery was a no ball which went for four. His second ball was a wide.

It was hardly a message to the rest of the side that this was how to do it. But for Lawson, suspended last year because of the dubious legality of his action, the odd wide is a mere bagatelle. He responded to Nathan Astle clumping him for a top-edged six by holding up the next delivery and seeing it clipped to Chanderpaul at square-leg.

Fleming was in one of his pleasantly assertive, extremely easy on the eye moods, but he did not make the most of being put down by Cartlon Baugh behind the stumps on 38. Seven runs later, attempting to hook Dwayne Bravo, he skied the ball and the bowler took the catch.

Bravo, whose sheer exuberance for his task seems to bring him wickets, became the tournament's leading wicket-taker when he bowled Scott Styris.

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