Committed to Caribbean cricket

Brian Lara is inspirational and when the West Indian selectors opted for youth following an unrewarding World Cup, it was only logical that they went for a skipper who could get the youngsters rallying behind him, writes S. DINAKAR.

THE Sinhalese Sports Club ground is a pretty venue and the view from the high press box is spectacular. Even if the cricket becomes a touch boring, there are always other elements that keep the proceedings lively.

There is that omnipresent music band belting out the best of Sinhalese and Tamil tunes, sections in the colourful crowd are never short of words, and the cool breeze making its way from the Indian Ocean can soothe your senses.

But the afternoons in Colombo can be hot, in fact very hot. It was on one such day when the mercury rose, that Brian Charles Lara decided to make a statement about his commitment to West Indian cricket.

Batting comes so naturally to Lara, and he makes it all appear so ridiculously simple that there are occasions when he doesn't appear trying hard enough. Precisely why his blood and guts 111 against Kenya in the ICC Champions Trophy last September assumes so much importance.

Having succumbed in a thriller to the Proteas earlier, the West Indies were virtually out of the race for a last eight place and Lara, felling unwell on the morning of the contest, could have so easily skipped the game against Kenya, a lower rung team in the cricketing hierarchy.

The choice was left to Lara and he insisted on playing. In sweltering heat, and overcoming bouts of dizziness and pain, that often saw him clutching his stomach in agony, he made a match-winning 111. The hundred had `character' written all over it.

Soon after he returned to the pavilion, Lara was rushed to a Colombo hospital, and the illness, about which there were conflicting reports, kept him out of the West Indian side till the 2003 World Cup.

Indeed, Lara's innings at the SSC was just the kind of effort that enables us to understand the person and the cricketer better. He may be a man of deep mood swings, yet, he is proud of his profession and will never quite compromise on his passion.

Lara is inspirational and when the West Indian selectors opted for youth following an unrewarding World Cup, it was only logical that they went for a skipper who could get the youngsters rallying behind him.

The decision might have been harsh on Carl Hooper, who had performed a decent job at the helm. However, the time was ripe for West Indian cricket to push forward, under a charismatic leader.

And, after a rather dramatic home season, the indications are that West Indian cricket might be turning the corner. The historic run-chase in the Antigua Test against the mighty Aussies, under Steve Waugh, and the three successive wins in the ODI series against Ricky Ponting's World Champions were significant results for the Caribbeans even if the series had already been lost.

Inexperience might have proved the side's undoing in the first two ODIs against Sri Lanka. It bounced back to win the third. However, the Caribbeans, with a bunch of young pacemen, ambushed the emerald islanders in the Test series. Lara, at his brilliant best with the willow, once again took on off-spin wizard Muttiah Muralitharan and came out triumphant.

Lara has displayed a definite maturity in his second innings as captain. He has been running hot with the bat, too, gathering 533 runs in the four Tests against formidable Australia at 66.62 and then returning an astonishing 299 runs at 149.5 in the short two-Test series, where the Lankans were defeated.

And in the limited overs variety, the genius in the man was reflected in his strokeful 116 in Cape Town, where he destroyed the South African attack with strokes of clinical precision in the World Cup lung-opener. A knock studded with rare jewels.

It was his first international outing after the Champions Trophy, the stage was big, the pressures were huge, and the Trinidadian rediscovered his touch, range and timing out of nowhere. Lara had whipped up magic yet again, in the blink of an eye.

Indeed, it is a high-octane ride when Lara's in mood, with the southpaw having the ability to dismantle an attack, slicing the enemy open, much like an expert swordsman would.

It is not so much power as sheer timing that does the damage, with Lara picking the length a shade earlier than most and then whipping or driving the ball, through the gaps. And his fierce pull off the fastest of bowlers is one of the great shots of the modern game.

Critics will probably point to his back-lift that may be a touch too elaborate or a slight shuffle across the stumps. However, crucially, the left-hander is beautifully balanced for most part, whether in offence or defence, against pace or spin, off the front or the back foot, the transfer of weight being effortless, the ability to get into a decisive position evident.

His exquisite range of shots can be so captivating that we often tend to ignore the fact that this man concentrates extremely hard, surviving through the sessions. When Lara gets into `the zone he is hard to stop, driving, flicking, cutting and pulling all day, the lengthy periods of defence that we normally associate with long, grinding knocks, conspicuous by their absence.

Lara's recent double century at the expense of the Lankans at St. Lucia was his fifth in Test cricket - an outstanding achievement in itself - and this special player's world record 375 at St. John's, Antigua in `94, where he drove the Englishmen to despair, was only the third time he went past hundred in Tests! Not to forget his first three-figure knock in Test cricket — a mind-boggling 277 in Sydney during the 1992-93 season, when he dismissed the mighty Aussie bowlers with flair and dash.

In fact, Australia, the champion side of our times, has invariably managed to bring the best out of Lara and he has made 2470 runs from 50 Tests at 51.45 at the expense of the Aussies. And Lara's fascinating face-offs with that lean and mean paceman Glenn McGrath will not be clouded by the mists of time - a battle within a battle.

Looking back at Lara's career, two series stand out for the sheer intensity of the contests. The first was against the Aussies in '99, where the southpaw's 546 runs from four Tests (ave. 91) included two classic knocks of our times - 213 at Kingston and 153 not out in Bridgetown. Innings where he authored sensational comebacks from impossible situations.

The second hugely successful series for him was in Sri Lanka in 2001-2002, where he used his feet skilfully against Muralitharan to conjure an astonishing 688 runs (ave. 114.66) in three Tests.

The Lankan off-spinner, against accepted theory, may be more comfortable operating to the right-handers, since the delivery that straightens is his `killer ball, — the same ball will be drifting down a southpaw's pads. However, Lara's delightful footwork — he dances down the track like a ballet dancer — and in-born aggression enabled him seize the initiative from Murali.

It was no different recently when Lara produced an attacking series-clinching unbeaten 80 at the Sabina Park, conquering Muralitharan in the process. If Sachin Tendulkar is a `heavyweight boxer in cricketing terms, Lara is more of a `lightweight fencer. In Test match cricket, the Trinidadian, arguably, is a bigger match-winner, while Tendulkar's sheer explosiveness scores in the limited overs variety.

His tally in Tests (96 matches, 8404 runs, 21 centuries, ave. 51.55) and ODIs (219 games, 8233 runs, 17 hundreds, ave. 43.10) are impressive though he averages slightly less (46.28) abroad in Tests. He still has time to set right the imbalance.

The man in the maroon cap may be 34, but his quest for greatness has not ebbed. In the 75th year of West Indian cricket, `The Great Lara Waltz' continues. A celebration of batting that is, both, priceless and timeless.