Lara's latest absence

TONY COZIER

IT doesn't require any special cricketing perception to appreciate the effect of Brian Lara's absence from the West Indies team in India.

The complaint that struck him down in the Champions Trophy in Sri Lanka, even as he was fashioning a crucial hundred, means the loss of a batsman fit to rate among the finest of all time and, at his best, the most devastating of his generation, capable of quick and heavy scoring.

"He's needed in India, he's a key figure in our side," captain Carl Hooper said in typical understatement when the illness still a mystery because of Lara's directive to the team management that it should not be disclosed sent the unique left-hander to hospital.

It is not that the West Indies can't win without him.

It is the fourth time in the last two and a half years that the holder of the record scores in both Test and first-class cricket, and one of the biggest attractions in the game, has missed series. The West Indies have won three of the four when he was away - over Zimbabwe home and away and over Pakistan at home.

The only time they have lost any Test during his absences were the two to Pakistan in Sharjah last February when he was recuperating from the fractured left elbow, also sustained in Sri Lanka during a one-day international last December.

What is more, the West Indies came from behind to clinch the series over India in the Caribbean earlier this year 2-1 when Lara, still not fully recovered from his elbow injury, managed to average a mere 28.85.

If these are facts that might lessen the psychological impact of his latest withdrawal, they cannot mask the impact of his loss on the team and on the series as a whole.

He is, with due respect to Hooper and Shivnarine Chanderpaul who so dominated the recent contest against India, the batsman opposing bowlers fear most and fans crave to watch. The eagerly anticipated, side-by-side comparison with the other batting Colossus of the day, Sachin Tendulkar, was spoiled in the Caribbean where both were below their best. Now it will have to wait for another time and, as Lara is now 33 and the next series between the two teams is four years hence, that time may never come.

Now that Lara won't be there, it offers an opportunity for three young batsmen - the left-handed Ryan Hinds and the right-hander Marlon Samuels, and the right-handed opener Daren Ganga, Lara's chosen replacement - to reboot their fledgling careers.

All three have already had an early taste of Test cricket and are clearly players on whom the West Indies must heavily depend in the future.

Ganga, 23, was always the obvious option once Lara was ruled out. The original 16 included only two openers, the left-handed Jamaicans Chris Gayle and Wavell Hinds, and Hinds' more regular station in his 24 Tests has been at No. 3.

Ganga's statistics in his 12 Tests are distinctly unimpressive (563 runs at an average of 20.85) but he has been repeatedly dropped by selectors who, all the same, have invested heavily in him since picking him, at the age of 19, for the 1998-99 tour of South Africa.

He was promptly omitted for the subsequent home series against Australia and has been in and out of the team since as seven others have been used as openers - Gayle, Hinds, Philo Wallace, Junior Murray, Sherwin Campbell, Adrian Griffith and Stuart Williams.

Ganga, solid and orthodox, has played Tests in South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka and Sharjah (against Pakistan) but never in the Caribbean. Now he can add India to his c.v..

His most recent Tests were the two against Pakistan in February when scores of 20, 34, 65 and 21 against Waqar Younis, Shoaib Akhtar, Abdul Razzaq and Saqlain Mushtaq indicated a consistency that needed to be developed. Instead, he was discarded on return home for the series against India when Stuart Williams was recalled and, after failing, Wavell Hinds given the job as Gayle's partner. Ganga captained the West Indies 'A' team on its recent tour of England and Canada, scoring unbeaten hundreds against Lancashire and Warwickshire and averaging 55.16 in first-class matches. This may be his last chance to restate his case to the selectors.

The careers of Ryan Hinds, a Barbadian and no relation to Wavell, and Samuels have so far run parallel to each other. They were both in the successful West Indies under-15 team to the Lombard World Challenge (the age-group equivalent to the World Cup) in England in 1996 and to the Youth World Cup in Sri Lanka in 1999 before taking the next step up. Both owed their early introductions to the Test team to injuries to established batsmen.

Samuels, a slim, graceful, naturally gifted player, was there first, as the surprise replacement for the injured Chanderpaul midway through the difficult tour of Australia in 2000-01.

Hinds' chance came in two Tests against Pakistan in Sharjah last February when Lara's elbow dislocation and Ramnaresh Sarwan's stiff back kept them at home.

Both made an immediate impression against high quality bowling.

In three Tests in Australia, against Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie and company, Samuels headed the team averages with 34.4.

Hinds handled his initiation against Pakistan with equal aplomb, with 62 in his debut innings and the topscore of 46 in his fourth and, to date, last.

Their value is enhanced by their ability to bowl steady finger spin and, especially in Hinds' case, his outstanding fielding in the key areas square of the wicket.

They arrive in India after a long time on the outside looking in: Samuels because of a knee operation in Sharjah last February that required six months recuperation and Hinds because Lara and Sarwan returned to reclaim their places for the home series against India and New Zealand.

With Lara present, it would have been difficult to slot either into a middle order that also includes Sarwan at No. 3, Chanderpaul at No. 5 and Hooper at No. 6.

Now Samuels, fit again, and Hinds, twelfth man throughout against India and New Zealand, will vie for the vacancy. And Ganga will give the selectors, under the new chairman Sir Viv Richards who will accompany the team on tour, the option of a right-hander to contrast with the two left-handers who most recently shared opening duties.

These are welcome opportunities. But there is no one, except perhaps India's bowlers, who would not rather that Lara was there.