Lara returns with his art intact

BRIAN LARA had everything going for him on the first day of Africa's first World Cup match in Cape Town, in front of the famous landmark, the grand Table Mountain.


Comeback man Brian Lara enjoyed himself with a century. Here he dispatches Lance Klusener to the fence.-— Pic. V. V. KRISHNAN

BRIAN LARA had everything going for him on the first day of Africa's first World Cup match in Cape Town, in front of the famous landmark, the grand Table Mountain. The genius of Lara surfaced and really elevated itself to lofty levels. The magnificence of Lara's 16th century in limited-over cricket had to be seen to be believed, but it broke the hearts of the 25000 home fans who had congregated at Newlands.

The West Indies emerged winner by the slender margin of three runs and thereby crossed one of its major hurdles in the first phase of the World Cup. Victory for the West Indies was something of a surprise on the first day of the 54-match event. It has been sort of languishing in the backbenches of the World Cup since Super Cat Clive Hubert Lloyd held aloft the Prudential World Cup at Lord's in 1979. The West Indies was truly the king of one-day cricket then.

Times changed sooner than later. The super specialists made way for a younger generation. There were good batsmen and good bowlers, but not in the same class of the men of the illustrious past. The overall standard of West Indies cricket also declined. The team suffered defeats and ignominy. Lara arrived, but there were no immediate gains in the World Cup competition, although he stopped South Africa in its tracks with a fast (94 balls) and superb (16 fours) 111 at the National Stadium, Karachi in March, 1996. Then, the West In<147,2,1>dies, led by Richie Richardson, beat South Africa by 19 runs. This was the best news for a dispirited side brought to its knees by Kenya at Pune in the same World Cup competition. It was then speculated that the West Indies was not united and the captain did not have the full support of some of the players.

After seven years things have been looking bright for the West Indies. The players have begun to accept Carl Hooper as their leader after an initial reluctance. Fortunately, Hooper has been lucky. The West Indies authorities have been unflinching in their support for him and the players have also responded well. Before Hooper took charge, the West Indies played to win or lose; under Hooper has emerged the first signs of a patient approach to building a team for the future.

Hooper's team did not arrive for the World Cup with a great fanfare as it was not being heralded as a champion team. But victories under its belt in India and Bangladesh — and this was without Lara — made it a force to reckon with. Lara's recovery from serious health ailments and his subsequent inclusion in the team straightaway provided it strength and power. Hooper was guarded in his statements when he landed with his team for early preparation and was not off the mark when he said that his team couldn't be written off as a no-hoper. This was not a boast, but a remark carrying great weight.

The West Indies started its preparations with a bang, scoring two morale-boosting wins in the warm-up games. It gave opportunities to all the batsmen and the bowlers and waited anxiously for the readmittance of Marlon Samuels into the squad. The ICC took time to take a decision on this matter before finally agreeing to bring back Samuels in place of Ryan Hinds.

Thereafter, Lara took charge at Newlands and announced his presence quickly in the World Cup stage after 4500 South Africans had taken part in a soul-stirring opening gala the previous night. South Africa and Shaun Pollock's celebration at the fall of Wavell Hinds to the last ball of the fifth over was the cue for Lara to reappear on the international scene. Just a run had been scored off the bat of Chris Gayle when the red-headed South African forced a nick off the bat of Hinds.

Pollock and Makhaya Ntini looked at ease bowling to the left-handers and Gayle, Hinds and then Lara needed luck to survive their opening spells. Jacques Kallis dropped Lara off the first ball he received from Ntini.

Ntini, who has improved in the last 12 months, sustained the pressure while Pollock showed skills and took wickets. Ntini made the champion batsman, Lara, square up a little and defend. But Kallis did not take the chance and South Africa paid a heavy price. Lara went from `zero to hero' in three hours and the West Indies thanked its stars.

Ntini got the wicket of Lara finally, but only after the left-hander had played a masterful innings and a great straight down the ground shot off the fast bowler. The class of Lara was evident in the way he dealt with Pollock and Ntini. While Gayle and Hinds played and missed, Lara left the deliveries outside the off stump and defended when the occasion demanded with the full face of the blade. Lara and Shivnarine Chanderpaul played with purpose and commonsense and were successful in warding off danger. They took their singles and kept the scoreboard moving. Chanderpaul then smashed Allan Donald for three fours and Lara brought his bat down from a big backlift to meet Donald and send the ball sailing over the sightscreen.

It was Lara's first big scoring shot. After this exhibition of power, emerged his panache. His hands and legs moved beautifully to tackle the pace, seam or turn. The run rate climbed from a poor two to upwards of three an over. Lara played square of the wicket with precise cuts and pulls and dismissed left-arm spinner Nicky Boje with a neat sweep shot. Needless to say Lara was in his element as he took the match away from the Proteas.

"I have been working hard since December. The World Cup is a big stage and I want the West Indies to have the best of me,'' Lara said after receiving the `Man of the Match' Award from Sunil Gavaskar and later at the press conference. Skipper Hooper too was quick to make a point about the importance of Lara. "People have been asking me about his form. Today he showed it.''

The West Indies made 278 for five in 50 overs and Lara's contribution was 116 (his 16th century in 199 one-day innings). He struck 12 delightful fours and two big sixes. Chanderpaul (98 minutes) helped him stage the rescue act with a partnership of 102 runs after Pollock had dispatched the openers. Hooper helped Lara to forge a partnership of 89 runs. Lara top-edged at 215 after which Ricardo Powell and Ramnaresh Sarwan treated the South African bowlers like club trundlers. This was bound to happen after the 45th over. Powell and Sarwan thrashed a partnership of 63 in 28 balls, Powell making an unbeaten 40 off 18 balls with five 6s and Sarwan making an undefeated 32 off 15 balls with four boundary shots, two of which went over the line.

South Africa had won 15 of the 19 matches it had played at Newlands for a winning percentage close to 80. But the West Indies had other ideas.

Herschelle Gibbs and Gary Kirsten gave South Africa a sound start taking toll of the West Indies new ball bowlers. Hooper defended his decision to pack the team with seven batsmen and taking the field with three specialist pace bowlers and some part-time spinners.

South Africa lost its way, but regained momentum through the bold methods of Mark Boucher and Lance Klusener (57 off 48 balls with 5 sixes and one four) who threatened to finish it off, but Hooper's safe hands and two extraordinary overs by Pedro Collins and Vasbert Drakes, who has the experience of playing in the South Africa for six years (for Border), gave the West Indies a hard-earned victory and a memorable start in the tournament.

The high point of the day was of course Lara's polished and powerful strokeplay in difficult times. Without him the West Indies might have been crushed, but the fact he is there is not a good sign for the rest of the teams in the tournament.

His statement that he is not fighting to establish himself as the No. 1 batsman in the world, but to play well for the West Indies to have the best of him, is a comment that is loaded with meaning and a clear warning for the rival bowlers and teams.

The scores:

West Indies: C. Gayle b Pollock 2; W. Hinds c Boucher b Pollock 0; B. Lara c Pollock b Ntini 116; S. Chanderpaul c Boucher b Klusener 34; C. Hooper c Kallis b Ntini 40; R. Powell (not out) 40; R. Sarwan (not out) 32; Extras (lb 6, nb 4, w 4) 14; Total (for five wkts. in 50 overs) 278.

Fall of wickets: 1-4, 2-7, 3-109, 4-198, 5-215.

South Africa bowling: Pollock 10-2-52-2, Ntini 10-1-37-2, Donald 9-0-54-0, Kallis 10-2-52-0, Klusener 8-0-53-1, Boje 3-0-24-0.

South Africa: H. Gibbs c Jacobs b Dillon 24; G. Kirsten c & b Dillon 69; H. Dippenaar st. Jacobs b Hooper 20; J. Kallis c Jacobs b Collins 13; J. Rhodes b Hooper 2; M. Boucher b Gayle 49; S. Pollock c Hooper b Gayle 4; L. Klusener c Hooper b Drakes 57; N. Boje (not out) 25; M. Ntini c Sarwan b Drakes 0; A. Donald (not out) 0 (did not face a ball); Extras (lb 4, nb 3, w 5) 12; Total (for nine wkts. in 49 overs) 275.

Fall of wickets: 1-46, 2-79, 3-104, 4-117, 5-155, 6-160, 7-204, 8-271, 9-271.

West Indies bowling: Dillon 10-0-47-2, Collins 9-0-54-1, Drakes 8-1-33-2, Hooper 10-0-63-2, Gayle 10-1-60-2, Powell 2-0-14-0.