West Indies find a silver lining

Stephen Fayre flects on a rare jewel uncovered in the darkest hour

Brian Lara is only 31 but he has already identified his natural successor in the West Indies middle order. To anyone who saw his candidate bat this summer, Lara's selection will come as no surprise. It is Ramnaresh Ronnie Sarwan, aged 20, who batted at six in three Tests and topped his side's batting averages with 40.75, compared to Lara's 26.55.

Brian Lara is only 31 but he has already identified his natural successor in the West Indies middle order. To anyone who saw his candidate bat this summer, Lara's selection will come as no surprise. It is Ramnaresh Ronnie Sarwan, aged 20, who batted at six in three Tests and topped his side's batting averages with 40.75, compared to Lara's 26.55.

When the two of them were together for nine overs after lunch on Monday at The Oval a small worm of doubt began to gnaw at the minds of England's fielders. Gough went for 10 in an over, and the pair had added 46 for the fifth wicket when Lara called for a quick single, and changed his mind just too late for Sarwan to regain the crease at the bowler's end. Graham Thorpe's direct hit had removed the bails, and poor Sarwan lay writhing on the pitch, having been accidentally kicked in the head by Thorpe as he followed through.

In a famous panegyric about Sarwan at the start of the summer, Ted Dexter wrote: "What a treat it will be to watch him and Brian Lara playing together, and I would not like to bet who would look the better." Before his inglorious exit, Sarwan had outscored Lara, and maybe even looked better. The lingering memory is of hard-hit drives off the full face of the bat as well as delicate nudges behind square, and of four fine boundaries in his score of 27 off only 31 balls. In the coming decades, the full house at The Oval will remember a great day for England, but they may well also recall this cameo, one of the early innings in the career of a great Test batsman.

Sarwan is a slight figure, weighing less than 10 stone. He gives his height as 5ft 8in, though, looking at him in the middle, that may be a tall story. Lara is taller than he is, but height has rarely been an attribute of a great batsman. Think of Tendulkar, De Silva, Langer, or of the West Indian with whom Sarwan is most often compared: Rohan Kanhai, another elegant Indian from Guyana.

Ricky Skerrett, the West Indies manager, says that Sarwan was the only one of the cluster of promising young players who they brought over this summer who was able to lift his game at Test level. He proved a good tourist too: "He has his problems, but he's less disorganised than the other youngsters. Some didn't handle it too well."

David Lloyd noted that Sarwan is a precocious, confident young lad. "He took time to visit our commentary position [early in the tour at Cardiff] to say hello and see what was going on. He has got something about him."

Sarwan's success in England will come as no surprise in Guyana. He was born on 23 June 1980 in the Essequibo region south of Georgetown. Tony Cozier points out that many of the best young West Indian players come from the countryside where, unlike the cities, cricket is still the staple sport. Sarwan's talent was so prodigious that he was selected to play for Guyana at 15 - which made him the youngest-ever first-class cricketer in the West Indies. At 15, he was also given a job as an assistant dressing-room attendant during Tests at the Bourda in Georgetown. He got his exposure to Test cricket by hanging round the players. He toured South Africa and Bangladesh with the A side,and made his Test debut, aged 19, against Pakistan in May, scoring 88 not out.

After that innings, Dexter wrote: "He seemed completely capable of standing shoulder to shoulder with established Test players as though he had been doing it all his life." So he had. Dexter, who forecast that Sarwan will average in the 50s or 60s for the next 15 years, singled out his coolness, aplomb, sang froid, assurance and technical excellence. Skerrett adds background, instinct, talent and confidence to this list of virtues: "In terms of batting skills, I think Sarwan is simply a younger version of Brian Lara," he says.

Lara has already passed on tips about the playing surfaces in Australia, where Sarwan's liking for playing through the line ought to help him. Skerrett thinks the team management have little to teach him, although Roger Harper, the coach, is intent on drumming into the young head the importance of building a long innings. He did so only once this summer, in the first innings at Headingley, when he scored 59 not out.

Sarwan also exhibited grace under tragic personal pressure. In the middle of August he learned that his girlfriend had died; he cried plenty at the time, but when he talked about death with Skerrett, the conversation was philosophical: "He was trying to bring reason to it, to be positive. He has a searching mind," Skerrett says. Sarwan went home for the funeral, returning shortly before the last Test, but there was no evidence of distraction or self-pity. "He has the ability to focus and the strength to move on," says Skerrett.

It is astonishing to think of anyone being good enough to inherit Lara's role, but we know that Sarwan already has one of Lara's unusual gifts - his ability to give great pleasure while he is causing much pain.

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