Lara's change of heart lifts West Indies

Surprise announcement by Trinidadian talisman leads to belated inclusion in revised tour squad
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As unpredictable as ever, Brian Lara made an overnight change to his decision to opt out of the imminent West Indies tour of England and was hurriedly included in the team of 16, announced here yesterday.

After he advised the West Indies Cricket Board of his unavailability by letter on Tuesday, citing the illness of his mother, Pearl, as the reason, Lara was omitted from the original team. It was what the chairman of selectors, Michael Findlay, called yesterday "a sudden announcement that caught us all by surprise".

In naming the squad at a media conference, Findlay said Lara had faxed his revised position in a letter received late Wednesday. "As you are aware, the family circumstances which prompted my letter remain unchanged but I shall be putting in place adequate arrangements to handle this to the extent possible whilst I am on tour," Lara said in his letter, read to the media by Findlay. "I am looking forward to the tour of England and the Board can count on my full support in this regard," he added.

Findlay quickly contacted his four co-selectors, scattered across the Caribbean, and Lara was back in the team. Even though Lara has not held a bat since the end of the domestic season in early February, the decision would have been straightforward, swift and unanimous.

The swap was one of the finest batsmen of his generation, holder of the record scores for both Test and first-class cricket, with 13 hundreds and an average of 51.6 in his 65 Tests, for Daren Ganga, a 21-year-old right-hander with only three Tests to his name.

Like the West Indian public, the selectors have become accustomed to Lara's fickleness. In a team of brittle and inexperienced batting, they have to be prepared to put up with it. Lara abandoned the tour of England in 1995, telling the manager, Wes Hall, "cricket is ruining my life" and only returned on the sympathetic persuasion of the then Board president, Peter Short. Later that year, he withdrew from a tour to Australia two days before the team's departure.

He resigned as West Indies captain on 24 February after what he termed "the moderate success and devastating failure" during his two years at the helm but, even then, assured the Board president, Pat Rousseau, that he would be available for the home series against Zimbabwe and Pakistan. A week later, he said he was concerned about his cricketing future and was taking a break during which he would "seek the assistance of appropriate professionals to rebuild all facets of my game so as to sustain the remainder of my cricketing career".

Whatever the theatrical circumstances, Lara's return will be widely welcomed, as much in the Caribbean as in, if not by, England. In his absence, there would have been a distinct lack of batsmen of crowd-pulling quality in either of the summer's touring teams, Zimbabwe or the West Indies.

The real fear in some quarters that he will prove a disruptive influence in a team under Jimmy Adams is mitigated by his relationship with the new captain. Adams has said Lara is "like a brother to me, both off and on the field" and repeated that he looked forward to his return "as soon as possible".

Even with Lara's late inclusion, the team remains inexperienced, especially in batting. Four of the eight specialist batsmen chosen - left-handers Adrian Griffith, Chris Gayle, Wavell Hinds and the uncapped teenaged righthander Ramnaresh Sarwan - have played fewer than 10 Tests, none of them in England.

Sarwan, a stylish 19-year-old who hit hundreds in each innings of a four-day match against the touring Zimbabweans in February, and the leg-spinner Mahendra Nagamootoo, both from Guyana, are the only two of the 16 without Test experience.

Test cricket's new wicket king, Courtney Walsh, with 437 in 114 Tests, and his veteran partner, Curtly Ambrose, 37, with 381 wickets in his 91 Tests, spearhead the six fast bowlers. Reon King, Franklyn Rose and Nixon McLean have all played in Tests and one-day internationals in the current international season in the Caribbean.

The surprise choice is the sixth fast bowler Corey Collymore. An aggressive, 22-year-old, Collymore has only recently recovered from a back injury that kept him out of action since the DMC Trophy tournament against India and Pakistan last September.

His first major match on his return is for the West Indies A team against Pakistan, starting at Kensington Oval here today.

Findlay said the WICB had turned down his request to increase the team from 16 to 17. It meant that Ridley Jacobs travels as the only specialist wicketkeeper. The captain, Adams, or batsman Hinds will replace him in minor matches.

The West Indies play five Tests against England, the first starting in Birmingham on 15 June, and will also meet the host nation and fellow tourists Zimbabwe in a triangular series of one-day internationals from 6 to 22 July.