Rising like a phoenix

BRIAN LARA... keen to play the role of the patriarch, and identify and groom a successor.-AP

Lara's third coming marks a critical phase for the future of cricket in the Caribbean. The peerless man from Cantaro, Trinidad, is the last link to a special past, and what he does in the present and the near future will have long-term implications, writes S. Ram Mahesh.

Why should it be any different this time? Down to its eyeballs in a bog that has clung on too long, West Indies cricket sent Brian Charles Lara an SOS. Will he please be captain, again? Reportedly in the face of cajoling and exhorting from the WICB honchos and past greats, Lara relented.

Which brings us to: Why should it be any different this time? His first two stints contained the odd moment of allure, the isolated promise of a return to an older time, but nothing major crystallised. Certainly not the resurgence West Indian fans have hung around for — arguing, debating, shrugging angst-ridden shoulders — till they could no longer take it. Then they returned for some more. In hope, in desperation. In vain.

Lara's third coming marks a critical phase for the future of cricket in the Caribbean. The peerless man from Cantaro, Trinidad, is the last link to a special past, and what he does in the present and the near future will have long-term implications. What he can do will, of course, be limited by the many complexities that riddle life in the West Indies.

It's neither possible nor prudent to look at the islanders' cricket in isolation — for it grew in connection with movements of anti-colonialism and anti-racism, as traced by activist, historian, and compelling writer C. L. R. James, and waned with shifts towards individualism and consumerism in cultural and financial structure. The strong sense of nationalism that characterised West Indian cricket teams of the 60s, 70s, and the 80s has since eroded.

Pertinent then that Lara views introducing his younger team-mates to their legacy as a priority. "I have an open-door policy for my mates — anybody who's had part of the success we had in the past should pass it along because we've got a young team, some of whom have played 10-11 Tests without a win," he had said in April before being named captain.

Recently, he spoke of the importance of talking cricket as a means both of getting in touch with the past and setting up for the future. "This is an area we are trying to get more of a contribution from the guys and get more cricket talk going. I have said over the years that the ability is there, but the problem has been putting it together on the field under pressure, so getting the guys acclimatised to match scenarios is important to us."

Sounds good, but what really is Lara's mandate? It's hard to put his reappointment down to long-term vision. At 37, he is modern sport's equivalent of a man getting used to life with dentures and a walker. Yet, the WICB has been at pains to point out that giving the captaincy to Lara isn't a stopgap solution.

Is the WICB putting all their eggs in one basket, the 2007 World Cup, and refusing to acknowledge it? Does it hope an improbable triumph against the odds will attract enough money and spark adequate interest to restart the assembly line that ran out of power?

Hard to say, for two reasons. First, to assume that is to presuppose the WICB is interested in restoring cricket to the primacy of position it once occupied in the West Indies. The ugly exchanges with the WIPA (West Indies Players Association) that seem to start just before a major series have had little to do with cricket. Second, there is no guarantee that a World Cup win will be followed, pat, by resurgence — the dismal performance after the triumph in the ICC Champions Trophy under Lara's stewardship in 2004 is a case in point.

Which brings us back to where we started. Only this much is certain: after mastering almost every batting record, Lara's only cricketing rationale to linger is the desire to preside over the turnabout. How does one quantify this turnabout? Toppling Australia as world champions in both forms? Settling for second to mount an assault when better prepared? Again, questions accrue, but few answers volunteer themselves.

Lara himself has spoken of playing the role of the patriarch, and of identifying and grooming a successor, but settling on a vice-captain has seemed incalculably difficult.

Perhaps it's best to start with the positives and take it from there. The dispute over retainer contracts has finally been settled. In Fidel Edwards and Jerome Taylor, Lara has a new ball attack that can challenge. Dwayne Bravo's century in Australia, his fielding and his return to bowling after injury are encouraging auguries. As is the relative success openers Chris Gayle and Daren Ganga achieved during an otherwise abysmal tour of New Zealand.

"We want to be able to hold our heads, and enter the World Cup not playing or guessing or with people not confident that we can win," said Lara, who has risen more than once like a phoenix, resentful at being written off.

"The next 10-11 months is geared towards getting the guys ready and from now on we have to be very, very competitive." How it pans out from there will make interesting viewing.