Time for Lara to catch fire

Rob Winder discusses the desperate struggle facing an old power
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THERE have been 22 matches in the World Cup so far, so it is quite a tribute to the soft-centred structure of the tournament that tomorrow's game between Australia and the West Indies is the first one that really matters. After their disastrous collapse against Kenya, the West Indies need to beat Australia to make it to the quarter-finals. It is theoretically possible that they could score heavily enough to qualify even if they lose, but who'd want to bet on that? In three games so far they have scored only 400 runs.

Some will say it serves them right for refusing to go to Sri Lanka; but it might be that this simply saved Sri Lanka the job of beating them. Certainly, they look to be in the most thorough disarray. Richie Richardson's fraught reign as captain appears to be all but over, and his probable successor, Brian Lara, finds himself in a curious position: the worse he plays, the closer he comes to the captaincy.

Lara himself batted with something like hysteria against Kenya, missing and swiping his way to a suicidal eight - too desperate, perhaps, to make his mark on a competition that so far has passed him by. Still, he remains (despite Richardson's reluctance to admit it) the West Indies' only hope. If things go his way, he could set a worthwhile target on his own. But a side that has Roger Harper coming in at six has painfully little room for error.

The West Indies bowlers, who have pulled them out of trouble so many times in the past, have been easily tamed on the slow, low wickets of the sub-continent. When they played India, they brought to the match the conviction that Vinod Kambli didn't like the fast stuff. Oh yeah? Kambli pulled Ambrose twice for four, then stepped forward and lifted him for six over midwicket. The next ball was a completely accidental beamer, but who cared? The Game Over lights were already flashing.

It's just one match, of course: anything could happen. But of all the sides they could be playing . . . When the West Indies toured Down Under before Christmas they were twice humiliated by the Australian Academy. Now they find their lives depending on a match with the First XI. Australia are humming. Mark Waugh is batting as if it's a fathers' match - after three innings (140, 126 and 76 not out) he's averaging 166. His timing has been spectacular: at the end of Australia's victory over Zimbabwe, he tapped away the winning single - and the ball fizzed past mid-off for four. He has been so commanding, in fact, that he has kept his team-mates away from the crease; they might even be a touch short of practice should he fail.

Australia's key man, however, remains Shane Warne. Except for one dramatic over when Sachin Tendulkar took him on, he has been virtually unplayable. On helpful pitches he is spinning the ball so hard that anything pitched outside off-stump risks being a wide. His last 19 overs in the tournament have produced figures of five for 42. So the contest between Warne and Lara will be played in conditions that load the odds in favour of the ball.

Nothing reveals the difference between these two sides more than the demeanour of their captains. Richardson stands in silence, staring through sunglasses at his side's slip-ups. The television spots from the West Indies sponsor, Kingfisher, show the team dancing and grinning with invincible togetherness. It doesn't look that way on the field. Taylor, in contrast, jogs about clapping his hands, swapping quick words with the lads. Against India, his was the nerve that held firm under fire. Sanjay Manjreka (64 not out) was looking ready to drive home the advantage gained by Tendulkar's explosive 90, so Taylor brought back Warne. In defiance of the biff-baff conventions of one-day cricket, he stationed himself at slip - and the very first ball produced the intended catch.

Australia don't need to win this match; but they are not noted for their kindness towards opponents who are down. The West Indies are one game away from a bitter fight about their own future. If by some chance they should win, then the defeat by Kenya may appear, in time,like a mere blip. But this might not be the best thing for them. There is a consensus that the real crisis in West Indian cricket is one of leadership, and only the ignominy of a thorough thrashing will provoke the necessary revolution back in the palm-tree sunshine. Perhaps, like any government that has reigned supreme for years, a spell in opposition will do them good.