West Indies cricket is looking good

THE first campaign of his second coming as West Indies captain satisfactorily behind him, Brian Lara has set his sights on unfinished business in South Africa come December and January.

TONY COZIER

It was on the insistence of Brian Lara, who recognised his pace and potential while batting against him at net practice in Barbados, that Fidel Edwards, the five-wicket man, was included in the team for the second Test.-Pic. AP

THE first campaign of his second coming as West Indies captain satisfactorily behind him, Brian Lara has set his sights on unfinished business in South Africa come December and January.

He has gone through the entire scale of emotional highs and lows during his turbulent career but there has been no lower point than the 1998-99 tour there.

He acknowledged, after leading his team to its seven-wicket victory over Sri Lanka in the final Test at Sabina Park that was a happy climax to the long international season, that it was the series that "kind of derailed Brian Lara and West Indies cricket.''

It was preceded by the sudden, week-long stand-off between the players and the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) that threatened to scuttle a tour as critical for its political and social significance as its cricket. The upshot was defeat in all five Tests and six of the seven one-day internationals.

Long before the end, the team was clearly fragmented and captain Lara was a sad and detached leader. A year later, he quit the post and took a break of four months from the game to consider his future.

Four years on, the transformation has been remarkable.

Now Lara can say, as he did recently, that he expects his new, young side to avenge the humiliation of 1998-99 and win the series of four Tests and five one-day internationals that run from December 3 to February 4.

Only three months earlier, when he resumed the captaincy, he admitted that he felt it would be an achievement to win even one Test in South Africa.

Eventually, persuaded by Rev. Wes Hall, the persistent president of the WICB and a trusted former player and manager, to accept the captaincy once more, Lara has immersed himself in the job. When reinstated in place of Carl Hooper in April prior to the tough home series against Australia, Lara avowed that it would have been "a dereliction of duty'' for him to have declined Hall's overture.

It would be, he promised, "a different Brian Lara you'll be seeing out there.''

He has been true to his word.

His batting has been as sublime as ever but significantly more consistent. In the six Tests against Australia and Sri Lanka, he counted a double-hundred, two singles and three other scores over 50 for an overall average of 83.20.

With the support of a selection panel headed by Sri Viv Richards, a kindred spirit, and including Joey Carew, his long-time mentor, he has identified very young players, unheard of before the season started, who have what he termed "the right attitude and character traits.''

Banks, previously known as the beer of Guyana and Barbados, became 20-year-old Omari, Anguilla's first Test cricketer and a settled member of the West Indies team as a level-headed off-spinner and ice-cool batsman.

Carlton Baugh, a little wicket-keeper who had not even represented his native Jamaica, was picked to fill the breach when Ridley Jacobs tore his 35-year-old groin muscle.

Jerome Taylor was excused from classes at his school in the western Jamaican parish of St.Elizabeth so he could bowl fast against Sri Lanka even before his 19th birthday.

Most outrageous of all, Fidel Edwards was chosen for the last Test against Sri Lanka in spite of having only a solitary first-class match to his name over a year earlier. It was on the insistence of Lara who recognised his pace and potential while batting against him at net practice in Barbados.

Edwards, now predictably "Castro'' to his teammates, was so surprised he took the official telephone call declaring him a West Indies cricketer to be a prank by one of his friends.

He proceeded to take five wickets on debut and deliver outswingers at 90 miles an hour with a slinging, Jeff Thomson-like action.

After much discussion, Lara also convinced his colleagues that Corey Collymore had the stuff they were looking for in their "right combination'' and that his four-year confinement to the one-day game should be ended.

The resilient Barbadian, still only 25, had to overcome two stress fractures of the back and doubting selectors to keep going. He responded to his belated opportunity with separate returns of five and seven wickets and both the Man of the Match and the Series awards in the two Tests against Sri Lanka.

It was unrealistic to expect all of the selections to prove instant successes.

David Bernard was clearly an all-rounder as yet out of his depth at the highest level.

Tino Best had nothing to offer but raw pace and that wasn't enough on a graveyard of a pitch in his native Barbados. And the left-handed opener Devon Smith's obvious and abundant talent needs the final polishing that only more exposure will bring.

There were a few other disappointments among those long since in the team.

Chris Gayle's technique as an opening batsman was no better than it has always been against the moving ball, so skilfully used by the Sri Lanka left-hander Chaminda Vaas.

Marlon Samuels, as promising a player as any of this season's new crop when, like Edwards, he was fast-tracked into the team in Australia in 2000-01, inexplicably went backwards following his encouraging advance in India last November. He is yet a mere babe at 22 so there is time for him to regain the self-belief all young players need.

Merv Dillon, six years a Test player and the only current West Indian with over 100 wickets in both forms of the game, should have been relied on to carry an attack as inexperienced as Lara had at his disposal.

Instead, his form was so indifferent he was twice dropped during the season. He now faces an uncertain future. Perhaps he noted that bowlers with a combined total of 12 Tests and 34 wickets between them managed to dismiss Sri Lankan batting with a collective 43 Test hundreds for totals of 208 and 212 in the final Test.

There are a few other concerns for Lara before he heads for South Africa, via Zimbabwe. One of the most pressing is the fielding.

No team with such limited, if promising, bowling resources can expect to make an impression on good pitches when an average of four catches an innings are dropped, as is now invariably the case. It is an area that needs special attention.

Still, overall, Lara's optimism is justified.

The phenomenal result over Australia in the last Test in Antigua, achieved by amassing Test cricket's highest winning total, and the victory over a vastly more experienced Sri Lanka team indicated a new tenacity and commitment and there is nothing more essential in any sport.

The winning eleven in each contained six players under the age of 24. Lara clearly has the material necessary for him to fulfil his dream of becoming the leader of a West Indies that, once again, can reclaim the lofty heights of the past.

``I won't say that we have the right eleven, but I think we have the right 16 or 17 players from which to choose for the future,'' he said.

``If we can take care of South Africa, I believe we are well on the way to go down to Australia (in 2004-05) and take them on because dominating the world means dominating Australia,'' he added.

It's a long way off but that would be something to eliminate all the memories of the trials and tribulations which he, and West Indies cricket, have endured together.