Lara's strange thinking

AS expected, Steve Waugh completed the third Test in Barbados with his umpteenth Test win and another series triumph. He also facilitated Australia's return to the top of the International Cricket Council's Test match rankings.

ANDREW RAMSEY

AS expected, Steve Waugh completed the third Test in Barbados with his umpteenth Test win and another series triumph. He also facilitated Australia's return to the top of the International Cricket Council's Test match rankings. Along the way, he also joined former West Indian great Clive Lloyd as the most successful skipper in Test history with 36 wins.

Steve Waugh is congratulated by a fan after his 30th century in Test matches. This is an Australian record. — Pic. HAMISH BLAIR/GETTY IMAGES-

But as is so often the case in matches involving the West Indies, headlines during and after the game were dominated by Waugh's counterpart, Brian Lara.

Indeed, Lara set tongues wagging inside the packed Kensington Oval even before a ball was bowled in the third of the four-Test series.

That dubious distinction he achieved by winning the toss on a pitch which was obviously dry, flat and benign but — in keeping with his pre-match pledge to fight tooth and nail for a draw — he sent the all-conquering Australians in to bat.

Lara's thinking, as he articulated at the end of the first day when the Australians had predictably taken the Test by the scruff of the neck by piling up 320 runs for the loss of three wickets, was that because batting is the West Indies' only current strength, it would be much easier for them to save the match by batting for a long time on the last day and a half when he felt the wicket would be at its flattest.

Lara's logic proved unerringly skewed for several reasons.

Firstly, as the Australians found to their barely-contained delight, the pitch was at its friendliest on the first day and due to its sub-standard preparation deteriorated rapidly in the dry Barbadian heat as the match wore on.

Secondly, sending the opposition in usually suggests a captain backs his bowlers to at least make scoring difficult even if they're not capturing wickets.

Having opted to play an attack with just nine Tests experience between them — Vasbert Drakes (four), Jermaine Lawson (five) plus debutant quick Tino Best and uncapped spinner Omari Banks — Lara must have feared what would happen if the Australians got on top of them early.

Those fears were realised after just seven overs when Australia's score stood at 0-39, with opener Justin Langer missed at third slip off the first ball of the match.

Thirdly, if batting is your obvious strength why not take take advantage of a flat pitch against an attack which has a question mark over at least one bowler — Glenn McGrath returning from a four-week lay-off and desperately short of match fitness — and try and post a big total which will ensure you can't lose the game?

``It's going to be very hard to be in control of this match,'' Lara countered when this theory was run past him during the Test.

``Australia has batted very well so far. The one match that we batted first in Guyana, on a very good batting track, we were dismissed for a modest score after tea on the first day.

``So the simple answer is that I am going to back my players to bat very well both in the first and second innings. If they make a big total in the first innings, Australia has got to manoeuvre the game to try and get a result.''

In essence, Lara was so sure his team would be unable to beat the re-installed Test champions that he simply forfeited his chance to dictate terms from the outset and instead called on Waugh's benevolence to set up the match with a last-day declaration as he had done in the second Test in Trinidad.

But Waugh's positive and aggressive nature should never be mistaken for generosity, and he — by dint of his 30th Test century which carried him past Sir Donald Bradman as the most prolific Australian scorer of Test hundreds — along with Ricky Ponting's third consecutive century of the series ensured the West Indies had been batted out of the match by tea on day two.

By the time Waugh eventually declared Australia's innings closed at 605 for nine, a new Lara story was brewing.

On the day that he turned 34, Lara spent some time off the ground amid claims from the dressing room that he was suffering from a fever, thereby leaving the team in the hands of newly-appointed vice-captain Ramnaresh Sarwan who later admitted he had not captained since the Guyana under-19s and at times forgot it was up to him to set fields and the like.

When play resumed on the third morning, Lara remained at the team hotel and rumours swept Kensington Oval that he was suffering from chicken pox, a highly contagious condition which several other West Indian players had been afflicted by over recent weeks.

He did not return to the ground until tea on day three, by which time his team was in dire trouble against the unrelenting attack of Australia's four seamers — McGrath, Jason Gillespie, Brett Lee and Andy Bichel — as well as the guile of legspinner Stuart MacGill who continues to rack up Test wickets at a phenomenal rate.

Lara eventually appeared from the West Indian rooms shortly after tea when they lost Banks to be 6-245, still 161 runs short of the follow-on target.

The brilliant but enigmatic batsman was clearly inconvenienced as he scored just 14 in more than an hour and struggled for breath after completing runs, but mystery remained over the exact nature of his illness.

West Indies team officials issued an off-hand `flu-like symptoms' explanation for the captain's absence, and when pressed further brushed off journalists by claiming Lara's medical situation was his own business.

The reason for their unwillingness to venture comment stems from last year's ICC Champions Trophy in Colombo during which Lara was admitted to hospital and spent four months out of cricket as a result.

At that time West Indian team manager Ricky Skerritt released a media statement suggesting Lara was being tested for hepatitis, a release which infuriated Lara who has since refused to provide any details as to the reason for his illness.

He was no more forthcoming when quizzed about his latest setback after the Barbados Test.

``I was just very, very weak with flu-like symptoms,'' Lara said after claiming there were no similarities to his latest mystery illness and the one that flattened him in Sri Lanka.

``This was something that happened overnight and it was a bit unfortunate. It's just I'm a bit out of breath sometimes and very weak. So it was very tough for me to bat in the first innings during the hottest part of the day. That's why I came in towards the last part of the day.''

With uncertainty again swirling around their toughest obstacle, the Australians ground on towards another Test and series victory on a pitch that Steve Waugh described as the slowest and toughest he'd encountered in his record 159 Tests.

Thanks to MacGill's 4-107, Waugh's team managed to dismiss the West Indies for 328 — 277 in arrears — and realising their only hope of pressing for victory was to get them straight back in and give their bowlers around 180 overs in which to prise them out again on the dead track — Waugh enforced the follow-on.

At 3-187 by stumps on the fourth day, the West Indies' hopes of realising their pre-Test dream and hanging on for a draw depended on their team leaders Lara and Sarwan who began the final day at the crease.

Within five overs those hopes were gone, Sarwan adjudged lbw to MacGill in dubious circumstances to the first ball of the final morning and Lara falling in the same fashion to Bichel shortly after.

Some spirited resistance from Banks (32) and Carlton Baugh Jr. (18) ensured that Australia had to bat a second time, but the target of eight was a mere formality.

The brief Australian second innings did provide the local fans with something to cheer when Lawson pinned Langer in front with his first ball of the innings.

Having removed Lee and MacGill with consecutive deliveries at the end of Australia's first innings, the 21-year-old Jamaican became the third-youngest bowler in Test history and the first in the Caribbean to achieve a Test hat-trick.

``I've got great respect for West Indies cricket. They taught us a lot about where we are now. When I first played against the West Indies back in '85 they were the dominating force and we learned a lot about West Indies cricket," said Steve Waugh.

``At the moment, we're on top and you've got to make the most of it because you never know how long it's going to last and right now we're playing good cricket.

``The greatest sin for any sportsman is to waste good form, and we don't want to do that.''