The greatest cricketing experience I've ever had — Brian Lara

AS Australia ruthlessly trounced the West Indies in each of the first three Tests in the series that ended, Brian Lara might have wondered what he'd got himself into by taking up the captaincy once more.

TONY COZIER

AS Australia ruthlessly trounced the West Indies in each of the first three Tests in the series that ended, Brian Lara might have wondered what he'd got himself into by taking up the captaincy once more.

Four years earlier, after he quit the post following what he described as "modest success and devastating failure,'' the mercurial Trinidadian was so depressed he took four months off, was said to have considered retirement and had to consult a psychiatrist.

This time, as Australia reeled off victories by nine wickets twice and by 118 runs, losing only 28 of their 60 wickets in the process, Lara's reaction was resilience, rather than resignation. He kept repeating that, whatever the results, his young team - with an average age of 24 in the second and third Tests, the youngest the West Indies had ever put into the field — was improving all the while.

Lara's belief was vindicated on the last day of the series as his youthful West Indies, ranked on the International Cricket Council (ICC) league table only above Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, beat the seemingly invincible Australians by amassing 418 for seven in their second innings. It was a winning total never before achieved in 126 years of Test cricket.

He described it as "the greatest cricketing experience I've ever had'' and he's had enough to fill a lifetime. It was notable that he placed it above his 375 against England on the same ground nine years ago that remains Test cricket's highest individual score — and also above his unbeaten 153 that, virtually by itself, led the West Indies to a similarly unlikely victory in Bridgetown the last time Australia were in the Caribbean during his first tenure at the helm.

Those were personal achievements. This was a team effort in which most of the eleven had significant roles without, as so often, relying on his individual brilliance.

Not that Lara failed for, with scores of 68 and 60, he was the only one in the match to pass 50 in both innings but, when he was bowled by leg-spinner Stuart MacGill in the second innings at 165 for four, 418 was still light years away.

It needed aggressive hundreds by Ramnaresh Sarwan, his young vice-captain, and by the established left-handed Shivnarine Chanderpaul that rattled the Australians to set up the victory. A level-headed, unbroken partnership of 46 between Omari Banks, an ice-cool 20-year-old, and the shrewd old pro Vasbert Drakes sealed the deal on the last morning.

``It showed true character and it showed the progression of the team, mentally and physically,'' Lara said.

He confidently predicted, the West Indies would not lose another Test for the year. Two against Sri Lanka follow here next month with others in November and December in Zimbabwe and South Africa.

It was the prospect of leading a brigade of promising adolescents that prompted Lara into having another shot at captaincy when the selectors removed Carl Hooper after the first round elimination in the World Cup. As the oldest member of the team (he was 34 on May 2) and manifestly more mature than he was when first appointed to replace Courtney Walsh in 1998, he has the advantage of the generation gap that also favoured two of his most illustrious predecessors, Frank Worrell and Clive Lloyd.

Banks, tall and slim and tiny Anguilla's first Test cricketer, was one of five newcomers, all in their early 20s, introduced in the series.

The others were left-handed opener Devon Smith, David Bernard and Tino Best, 21, and wicket-keeper Carlton Baugh, 20.

Smith is a left-handed opener with the small, compact physique and style of a modern day Roy Fredericks. Bernard is an all-rounder, Best a hyperactive, tearaway fast bowler who failed to take a wicket in his only Test.

Baugh, who filled in when Ridley Jacobs missed the second and third Tests, is small enough to be doing his stuff on the back of a race horse at Jamaica's Caymanas Park track, rather than behind the stumps at Sabina Park.

The India `A' team came across all five during their participation in the regional Carib Beer Series. Smith hit 101 against them, Bernard scored a couple of 40s and took four wickets in an innings against them, Banks had three wickets for 100 from 28 overs, Best had eight wickets in their loss to Barbados and Baugh didn't do much.

In his first bowl in Test cricket, Banks went for 204 runs (claiming three wickets) and for another 153 (for two wickets) in the second innings of his second Test. But he never wilted and was there at the end with a decisive, unbeaten 47 in Antigua.

Lara called him "a breath of fresh air.'' He has suddenly become more famous than his father, Bankie Banks, one of the Caribbean's better known musicians in whose band his son has been strumming guitar since he was 12, or his uncle, Val, who is vice-president of the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB).

Omari's cricketing experience was advanced with stints at Leicestershire and Warwickshire, organised by Hampshire's former medium-pacer Cardigan Connor, a fellow Anguillan, over the past two seasons.

His surprise selection as off-spinner and all-rounder was part of the deliberate policy of chief selector Sir Viv Richards and his panel to test the character of promising youngsters by throwing them into the deep end against the most intimidating team in the game.

Batsmen Ramnaresh Sarwan and Chris Gayle, similarly introduced aged 19 and 20 respectively by an earlier panel under former Test wicket-keeper Mike Findlay, have become established members of the team.

If the stylish Marlon Samuels, another brought in at 19, was dropped half-way through the Australian series it was more for attitude than talent. By the final Test, when he was outstanding in the field as substitute, the message appeared to have sunk in that Richards won't abide posers.

Jermaine Lawson, the big, robust 21-year-old Jamaican, had only four Tests to his name prior to the series, all away. He provided the attack with the thrust and hostility it has lacked since the exit of Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh until his jerky action ran foul of umpires David Shepherd and Srinivasa Venkatarghavan while he destroyed Australia's first innings in Antigua with seven wickets.

He must now spend six weeks righting it but, with a host of great fast bowlers of the past here to help him, there is no reason why he shouldn't be back again as Shoaib Akhtar and Brett Lee have managed to do to the ICC's satisfaction. It is essential that he does, for the most glaring weakness in Lara's team is its bowling.

Whether the captain's second coming is any more rewarding than the first depends on whether these young charges can build on their experiences against Australia. Their extraordinary comeback in Antigua was a vital shot of self-confidence, an ingredient in short supply in West Indies cricket of late.