Jury still out on the enigmatic Hooper

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They would have been still singing the praises of Brian Lara in calypso in the streets of Notting Hill as much as Port of Spain and Bridgetown yesterday, but Carl Hooper would have been, as always, the subject for a great deal of serious cricketing discussion.

No West Indian player - not even Lara - evokes more emotional argument throughout the Caribbean. From the moment he took a hundred off a strong Barbados attack spearheaded by Wayne Daniel in his debut first-class match in 1985 at the age of 18, anyone with even the slightest appreciation of quality batsmanship could recognise his potential. This seemed to have been confirmed when he gathered a century in only his second Test, aged 21.

Yet, eight years and 52 Tests on, his 127 yesterday was only the fourth time he had passed three figures. His overall Test average of 31 represents an under-achievement almost unpara- lleled in the modern game.

To see Hooper come forward and effortlessly stroke a bowler of such nagging accuracy as Angus Fraser 100 yards back over his head is to witness remarkable natural talent. But for some inexplicable reason, he has only far too occasionally managed to get it right at the highest level.

His place in the West Indies team has repeatedly come into question, and it has been his off-spin bowling and reliable slip-catching that have compensated for the inconsistencies in his batting.

This one innings captured the intricate character of Hooper's play. He entered late on Saturday afternoon following the impossible grandeur of Lara's performance and seemed in a trance. He had scored only a single when he tamely prodded a catch back to the uncoordinated Devon Malcolm and was dropped.

Early yesterday morning, his mood was little different. Soon Malcolm had found his outside edge, only to see the catch fall an inch short of second slip and then, in the same over, Hooper simply nodded his head to a bouncer and took the blow on the top of his helmet.

That knock on the head may have shaken him out of his familiar inertia. Within half an hour the other Hooper emerged, full of confident, languid strokes in all directions, providing the momentum to a West Indies innings that was necessary to build a match-winning possibility.

By the end, he was hooking and cutting the same Malcolm as if he was a mere medium- pacer. There are few more exhilarating sights in the game than when Hooper is on the go.

West Indians will not delude themselves into believing that this innings will bring about his final breakthrough. Hooper is just as likely to come in to his next innings and play as if a novice. Or, then again, he might arrive at the crease and immediately knock the bowling all over the park with the effortless ease that identifies the extra-special player.

They will argue vehemently about it in the clubs and rum shops back home, and just as many as would have him exiled to his county contract with Kent vociferously demand that class is always class and that the West Indies can never do without him.