Lara's cameo brightens the gloom

The NatWest Series, intended to be the bright spark of the summer, finally struggled into life as a damp squib yesterday. It took an enormous amount of tender, loving care and devotion to duty by all concerned to reach that hybrid state.

The theory was that some cricket, no matter how fragmented or artificial, was better than no cricket, though the practice eventually disproved it. On a cheerless midlands evening, New Zealand and the West Indies took three points each with the match declared a no result in another downpour at 7.20pm.

Heaven knows what Martians, Americans - and come to think of it most close followers of the game - made of it. Put simply, West Indies made 121 for 4 from 21 overs and New Zealand were 97 for 2 from 13.4 overs, pursuing a target (set by Duckworth-Lewis) of 140 to win.

There was enough on show to whet the appetite for the rest of the triangular tournament, though given the conditions that have greeted the beginning of the series that might not be the most apposite of verbs.

Just when West Indies needed runs, they were provided by their captain, Brian Lara. In a blaze of outrageous strokemaking and improvisation, he took 23 off a single over from Jacob Oram with four consecutive fours, a six and a single. The first three boundaries were contrived sweeps to the leg side, the fourth was sliced to backward point, the fifth ball went square of the wicket as Lara made room outside leg and he pushed the sixth to mid-on.

"These things happen sometimes," Lara said afterwards. Well, Lara makes them happen more often than any other player. The members at Warwickshire, his former English county, of course, loved it. There could be plenty more to come from the master batsman this summer if the weather relents, though he might like to examine if it is necessary for him to go in as low as number five, especially in a shortened short match.

After the first match of the tri-series, between England and New Zealand, was cancelled on Thursday, there was naturally an eagerness for this, the second, to be played. So it was that on a gloomy Birmingham day where there was usually a respectable mizzle if not an actual downpour, the umpires eventually decided just before 5pm that a match of 21 overs a side would be possible.

Presumably, they were not anxious to reduce it to the new minimum of 20 overs a side (it was 25 until this summer) to protect the integrity of proper Twenty20 cricket. Given the sterling endeavours of the ground staff and the faithful presence of an astonishingly healthy crowd it was certainly the correct decision. But it should be reiterated that 21 overs a side is not proper one-day international cricket, not as we know it.

This sort of fractured contest is bound to be unsatisfactory. Play was long delayed but when it first began, a 35-over match was stipulated. West Indies had made the princely total of 10 runs before it rained hard again. That seemed to be that for the day, but the ability of the Edgbaston ground staff to absorb water is greater than the talent of Sky television pundits to exude hot air during rain breaks.

Against a swinging ball in the first part of their innings, West Indies began well, with Chris Gayle meting out punishment to anything off line. After the break, they had no choice but to attack, mindful that Duckworth-Lewis would still make the side batting second score considerably more to win.

With Lara's swash of the buckle they made it past the three-figure mark. It helped that he had Ramnaresh Sarwan's experience at the other end. But a score of 121, even when it was concerted to 140 by the Duckworth-Lewis scoring method, did not look to be enough.

By the end of the first over of the reply, it looked positively minuscule. Ravi Rampaul, the 19-year-old West Indian opening bowler, bowled a 12-ball first over, which cost 18 runs. It went wide, wide, dot ball, six, no ball, no ball, dot ball, wide, one run, wide, one run, four.

Perhaps it was unwise of Lara to ask Rampaul to bowl the first over in appalling conditions. Perhaps, as Lara said later, he is one of those young men in his extremely youthful side who is willing to learn quickly. He will need to.

Stephen Fleming, New Zealand's captain, struck both the boundaries in that opening over, and looked as though he knew exactly what he had to do. This lasted until the first ball of the third over, bowled by Jermaine Lawson, replacing the hapless Rampaul. It was short and outside off and Fleming clubbed the ball mercilessly backward of square three feet off the ground. Ricardo Powell, at backward point, flung himself to his left and held on to the catch with one hand. It was an example of superb reflexes and co-ordination, a catch to grace any game, and it deserved to a better setting than it was to receive.

The darkness set in, the rain started once more but they stayed on. Just as mutterings started that this was unfair to the fielding side, it got so heavy that the umpires had no choice but to decamp.

The start, of course, also ensured that the England and Wales Cricket Board, would not have to make too heavy a claim on their insurance premium. They already stand to refund £490,000 in ticket sales from Thursday's washout and were faced with a further £150,000 yesterday. If the match in Nottingham is hit to day a further £450,000 is at stake. The momentum of the summer is in danger of being lost.

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