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Lara picks up his burden and runs

At the age of 32, Brian Lara is tasting the tastes, smelling the smells and feeling the feelings.

india Updated: Jan 17, 2004 01:52 IST
Neil Manthorp
Neil Manthorp

At the age of 32, Brian Lara is tasting the tastes, smelling the smells and feeling the feelings. The West Indies captain has had his senses muted by his genius for most of his career but now, as it approaches its end, everything is changing. He appears, suddenly, to have realised that it is not going to last forever and he is cashing in.

In 11 Tests against South Africa before this season he had not scored a century and barely averaged 30. In this series so far, he has scored 491 runs at 81.83.

Last year was, statistically, the best of Lara's career with more than 1,300 runs at an average of 74. Though he has not reached (his) Olympian heights of 1994, nobody should believe his powers have diminished after a comparatively fallow period mid-career.

Lara is a changed man. Five years ago he was also captain when his disjointed rabble-rousers were whitewashed 5-0 in South Africa. That tour had begun with his squad holed up in a London hotel, while a payment dispute was sorted out with the West Indies board. It took a turn for the worse on the flight to Johannesburg when Jimmy Adams, had the tendons in his hand so badly cut that he had to return home almost upon landing.

Amusingly, the tourists could think of no better excuse than to issue a statement saying the accident had occurred during an altercation. A plastic butter knife was used. But rumours quickly began circulating that the amiable Adams had tried to play peacemaker in a dispute between two squad members one of them may have been the captain.

Lara was at his most profoundly aloof self during the tour, travelling with his 19-year-old English girlfriend in a private car while other members rounded up on their bus. Although he was clearly unhappy at the regularity and magnitude of the defeats, it was the disappointment of a confused, eccentric, unable captain.

How different he is now. Aware, to the point of embarrassment, of his youthful arrogance, he has taken an almost paternal interest in the many young, highly talented players.

He feels a special responsibility for Fidel Edwards's development, having insisted on his elevation to the national squad after facing him in the Barbados nets two years ago.

The captain has had senior heads to turn to such as Ridley Jacobs, Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Vasbert Drakes. But he has also placed pressure on the younger men, confident that he is there to guide and cajole.

After the second Test in Durban, when West Indies were hammered by an innings and 63 runs, Lara was boisterously confident that there would be no repeat of the whitewash. "It just won't happen," he said, making long but not aggressive eye contact with journalists at the post-match press conference.

Maybe it was a coincidence, but the team's performance was vastly improved during the third Test in Cape Town, with the opener Chris Gayle and the 20-year-old debutant Dwayne Smith both scoring extraordinary centuries at better than a run a ball. It was a sign that, though Lara may have added an edge of steel to his own game, he continues to encourage individual expression and Caribbean flair. He did, though, throw a metaphorical, protective arm around Smith, careful not to allow anyone to "write him up" too much.

"It was the innocence of youth and all credit must go to him for the way he played," Lara said afterwards.

"What I've seen from young Smith so far is tremendous. His work ethic is great and that is what you need."

Throughout the tour Lara has been careful not to mention his own form except when responding to direct questions. Even after scoring a double century in the first Test he talked about the team and tried hard to find positives, though there were few.

"In the past we have collapsed well before the last day. At least we are fighting hard and reaching the final day now," he said, to the consternation of Caribbean scribes. But Lara was talking positively, engaging people who have been at best sceptical and at worst cynical about him for over a decade. It was as if he believed he could turn things around through sheer force of belief, personality and willpower.

The Guardian

First Published: Jan 17, 2004 01:52 IST