The "only logical choice"

Lara is now 37. It is clearly his last chance to belatedly leave a legacy of leadership to add to that already BEQUEATHED West Indies cricket by his phenomenal batting, writes TONY COZIER.

TO Ken Gordon, the President of the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB), he was the "only logical choice". To Alloy Lequay, the veteran, one-time head of the Trinidad & Tobago Cricket Board (TTCB), the reinstatement of Brian Lara for his third stint as West Indies captain was merely a stop-gap measure for a maximum of two years and "those who endorsed the appointment have no vision of development".

To the Daily Nation of Barbados it would have been "unwise" to turn to any of the other candidates on the eve of the World Cup since "all of them would require a period of time to grow in the new job, while Lara would be able to quickly and effectively pick up the pieces and mould a unit."

To the Daily Express, in Lara's native Trinidad, it was "a retrograde step. A decision based on the expediency of the moment and does not go anywhere near to settling the leadership question as it affects the future of the game at its highest level in these parts".

These were the conflicting views on Lara's latest saga, echoed throughout the Caribbean, that emphasised that nothing has ever been straightforward in the long career of the most celebrated and controversial of West Indies cricketers.

The exact circumstances of Lara's promotion on the resignation of Shivnarine Chanderpaul after another unsuccessful series, in New Zealand in February and March, are unclear. It was impossible to tell whether or not Lara desired another shot at a post from which he had twice resigned. He did not obviously show it. Only a few weeks before the announcement, he restated his earlier intention to cut back on his appearances in one-day internationals at the age of 37 in an effort to extend his Test career. If that did not sound like someone with an eye on the captaincy, he spoke frequently and enthusiastically in New Zealand in March about the exciting young players emerging in the West Indies and of his eagerness to use his experience and knowledge to better prepare them for the challenge of international cricket. "The mental strength is important and that is really where I feel I come in as an experienced player, someone who has played in a winning team and now plays in a team that's not doing too well," he said at the time. Perhaps it was, indeed, a veiled hint that he was open to offers once more. Chanderpaul quit, pleading that he wanted to focus on his batting that had been undermined by the pressures of his year at the helm. Several others were immediately mentioned in the media as potential successors. The most prominent were Ramnaresh Sarwan, twice the vice-captain, Daren Ganga, who led Trinidad & Tobago to both Carib Beer titles in 2006, and Wavell Hinds, the experienced, no-nonsense Jamaica captain. Even Denesh Ramdin, the 20-year-old wicket-keeper at the start of his career, got a show on the basis of his captaincy of the West Indies to the final of the 2004 Youth World Cup in Bangladesh.

According to Gordon, none matched the criteria. "Of the players who were available it was felt that there were varying strengths but there were also varying weaknesses," the WICB President said. "While there had been previous occasions on which he had been captain and, therefore, that in itself raises questions, it was felt that whatever the risks, the best risk was to go with Mr. Lara". The issue soon arose as to who made the decision. According to a report on caribbeancricket.com, the website that dubs itself "the voice of West Indies cricket", it was virtually Gordon and Gordon alone. The selectors were said to have recommended Sarwan but this was overruled. It was also said that the Board members were presented with a fait accompli by their President. The reports have not been challenged. Whatever the situation, Lara was persuaded to take on the most thankless and complex job in West Indies cricket. He said "a lot of former players" called to press the case, followed up by "phone calls from present team-mates who thought I should assume the mantle of leadership at this juncture". It was, in his word, "humbling".

It was similar to how he took up the post the second time round, in 2003 after Carl Hooper was dismissed following the West Indies' first round elimination in the World Cup in South Africa. Groomed for captaincy from the time he led the West Indies team to the first Youth World Cup in Australia in 1988, Lara first came to the leadership of the senior team 10 years later. There was controversy then as well.

His promotion over the popular Courtney Walsh following the West Indies' first clean sweep loss of the modern era — 3-0 in Pakistan in late 1997 — was not universally popular. But when the West Indies won their first series under him, 3-1 over England, Lara, then 27, seemed sure of a long lien on the position. Soon, the players and the Board were involved in their first major stand-off that led to a one-week strike at Heathrow Airport prior to the historic, inaugural Test tour of South Africa.

A 5-0 sweep was the upshot and Lara was a couple of phone calls away from dismissal when his team tumbled to a resounding loss to Australia in the first match of the subsequent series. His response to the crisis was phenomenal. An innings of 213 was the basis of the West Indies' series-levelling victory in the second Test at Sabina, his unforgettable, unbeaten 153 at Kensington Oval sent them ahead before Australia pulled level to retain the Worrell Trophy.

A year later, the first round dismissal from the World Cup in England and the loss of both Tests and all five ODIs in New Zealand triggered Lara's resignation after "two years of modest success and devastating failure", as he put it. He sought professional advice to straighten out his game and his life and it was feared he would retire prematurely. Plenty of friendly persuasion was needed to change his mind about missing the tour of England in 2000 and he returned to the team under Jimmy Adams. Adams went the way of Lara and those before him following a 5-0 whitewash in Australia in 2000-01 and Hooper took over, but only as far as the 2003 World Cup. As the West Indies continued to flounder, the new WICB President, the "pace like fire" fast bowler of the 1960s, Wes Hall, decided to turn again to Lara. "I think it would be a dereliction of duty if I was to be presented with the job and to turn it down," was Lara's response. "I've had two years of introspection, two years of looking and seeing where I've gone wrong. Now it's a big challenge for us to continue shaping our character".

Once more, there was to be "modest success and devastating failure". There was the euphoria of his team prevailing over Australia in Antigua in 2003 by scoring Test cricket's highest winning total, his personal satisfaction at regaining the Test record score with his unbeaten 400 against England on the same ground a year later and the sweet success in the ICC Champions Trophy in England six months on.

These were counterbalanced by the loss of seven of eight home-and-away Tests to England in 2004, including another away whitewash, and heavy series losses to Australia at home and to South Africa in South Africa. By now, Lara's record as captain was unflattering — 10 wins, 23 losses in 40 Tests. But it was not the reason for his second resignation.

That came prior to the home series against South Africa in 2005 when he chose to stand in solidarity with those dropped because, like him, they had personal endorsement contracts with Cable & Wireless, direct competitors of the new team sponsor, Digicel. Lara's was a pre-existing agreement, sanctioned by the WICB, and it made him eligible to play. He chose not to and forsook the captaincy for the second time. Opinion on his decision was, as always, divided. For those who saw it as a noble gesture, there were just as many who regarded it as the cop-out at a time when West Indies cricket cried out for leadership.

So Lara is now back to where he started. Many, like Sir Everton Weekes, will say where he belongs. "He's an intelligent player, he's an intelligent person, and if I were the selectors, I would offer him the job", Weekes, one of the legendary Three Ws, said during the period of conjecture. "You've got to be a thinking player to perform like he does".

Lara is now 37. It is clearly his last chance to belatedly leave a legacy of leadership to add to that already bequeathed West Indies cricket by his phenomenal batting. His goal now is simple. "Success for me is producing a leader who will be able to take over", he says.

Before that time, he has daunting home series against the rapidly rising Indians, the Champions Trophy in India in October and a tour of Pakistan in November and December.

His missions are to restore confidence that has waned so markedly over the past decade, under him and all those who have led the team, and to inspire a stirring performance before home crowds in next year's World Cup, the first staged in the Caribbean.