The litmus test for Lara's leadership

West Indies need to move forwards or captain will have to go. Tony Cozier reports from Barbados

Brian Lara's assertion prior to West Indies' departure today for their England tour is a measure of the dramatic decline of a team who a decade ago had not been beaten in a Test series for 15 years.

"We have to ensure we get back to respectability in world cricket," was the stated aim. There was no prediction of recovering the Wisden Trophy, comprehensively retained by England with their 3-0 triumph two months ago, simply an honest acknowledgement of West Indies' present status.

Their dominance of the 1980s has declined so much that they are now rated above only Zimbabwe and Bangladesh among the 10 Test teams. They have been beaten in 28 of their last 38 Tests overseas. Of their five victories, two each have been over Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, the other over England at Edgbaston four years ago.

The coming two months, especially the four Tests that follow the NatWest Series, are as critical to Lara's future as captain as to that of West Indies cricket generally at a time when a two-tiered system at Test level is being seriously mooted.

It is an anomaly that while Lara remains one of the finest batsmen of his time, indeed any time, and the linchpin of his team's inconsistent batting, his record as captain is the worst of all those who have led West Indies. When he was urged by Wes Hall, then board president, to return for a second term at the helm last year, he said it would be a "dereliction of duty" had he not accepted. It has been an even more difficult time than his first tenure, which ended in his resignation four years ago after what he described as "two years of modest success and devastating failure". The records of his two spells are almost identical - 18 matches in each period, six wins and 10 losses first time round, four wins, nine losses now.

His frustration at his failure to stimulate better results from a group of obviously talented, but very young, inexperienced players (10 if the 15 for the NatWest series are under 25), was evident in his assertion prior to the final Test against Bangladesh last week. After West Indies had been embarrassingly held to a draw in the first match, Lara threatened that if they did not win the second he would quit the captaincy. It was never going to come to that, and West Indies won by an innings and 99 runs, but it was a brave call all the same.

His disaffection was alsoevident in his criticism of his fellow selectors, headed by Sir Viv Richards, for their refusal to go along with his call for a specialist spinner. He and Richards are similar spirits and a clash of egos was inevitable once Lara was appointed over Carl Hooper, against Richards' public preference. Pertinently, Lara got his way with the inclusion for the Second Test of Omari Banks, the tall off-spinner who claimed six wickets in the match. Lara has also publicly aired his annoyance with curators who produced slow pitches against Bangladesh, and his concern with injuries that have repeatedly laid low Fidel Edwards, Jermaine Lawson and Jerome Taylor, all young, genuinely fast bowlers.

As always, Lara evokes conflicting emotions in the Caribbean. Even the Daily Express in his native Trinidad was moved to editorialise that there might be "something negative about his leadership style that adds to rather than subtracts from what, clearly, is an enduring problem".

In contrast, The Nation of Barbados waxed lyrical in its praise after the victory over Bangladesh. "We shall resist joining those unbelieving Thomases that our day and Brian Lara's is nigh," it wrote. "We prefer to urge all to give this worthy icon of West Indies cricket our kindest wishes for success and that our words, now deadly knives, be turned to pillows of comfort and sustenance."

Strong, confident opponents await. It would be cockeyed optimism to anticipate a reversal of form by a struggling West Indies team. A return to respect-ability would satisfy the passionate public back home. Anything less would cost Lara the captaincy again, diminish the legacy of his batting artistry and leave West Indies cricket further in the dumps.

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