You name the shot and Lara played it

Brian Lara came up with a classic knock in the pipe opener, against the host South Africa.-Pic. AP

`I'm Brian Lara and I'm back to make an impression in the World Cup,' he seemed to say. Keep your fingers crossed for me.

He walked to the wicket slowly, as Bradman did, perhaps to accustom his eyes to the light, more likely to settle his mind, to switch on his concentration. Maybe he also wanted to establish in the minds of the spectators the importance of the moment; to feel what it was like to return to an international ground after so long confined to a sick bed.

`I'm Brian Lara and I'm back to make an impression in the World Cup,' he seemed to say. Keep your fingers crossed for me.

Not the old arrogant Lara, no longer the master of all he surveyed but a vulnerable, slightly diffident batsman anxious that his career might be unravelled in the next few balls against one of the finest attacks in the world, with two wickets in their pocket and their mutual tail vertical.

Not many of the 25,000 mainly South Africa fans crammed into Newlands offered up a prayer for Lara's success against their own heroes but if you were a neutral, one of how many millions watching on television from 5,000 miles and more away, or an admirer of one of the greatest batsmen of all time, you fretted for the man.

He had been injured, and taken ill after making 111 off Kenya in the mini World Cup, the victim of what the newspapers have always called a ''mystery illness'' — as if it might be something shameful although it was hepatitis — and out of the game for three months. So long that it seemed he could never be the old Lara again.

After all, we whispered, he is 33, no longer the lad with such promise that his fellow Trinidanians wanted him to be West Indies captain at 19, so fluent that he made the older West Indians jealous in the early 1990s. At that age, would he ever show us the strokes that hurtled him to 277 in Sydney and brought tears to the eyes of men of judgement; surely he would never hit the heights that produced 375 on a Test field and 501 on a county ground only six weeks later.

Even though he had made 688 in three Tests against Sri Lanka surely they did not count. Against the bowling of the second greatest cricket side in the world, he would be tested and West Indies were already in trouble.

We worried too early, too much. The real, gold-plated, copper-bottomed Brian Charles Lara was there to entertain us once more.

In the next two and a half hours he made only one mistake. Shaun Pollock got the first ball to rear off the pitch, forcing him to play an indeterminate shot that sent the ball at catchable height into the gully where Jacques Kallis, who does everything well, got a finger tip to the ball and saw it speed away.

For the next half hour, Kallis kept reminding Lara that he might have been out. I cannot believe he was saying "Welcome back to the big time, Brian Lara'' but it made no difference. Cool Lara took no notice. Kallis knew that another inch closer to the centre of his left palm and Lara's life story might have been different. Instead the incident simply reminded Lara of his own fallibility. So he told himself he must not play his big shots until he had judged the state of the pitch, the pace of the bowling and the feel of the game.

His luck was twofold. Not only was he dropped first ball — off a chance few fielders could have taken — but soon after he arrived at the crease Pollock made a crucial decision. He went off and took Makhaya Ntini off too and the pressure on the batsmen dropped.

Lara was not at ease until he decided that Allan Donald looked a temptation and launched a lofted drive into the crowd behind the sightscreen. From that moment there was no stopping him and we saw all he had to offer.

There was the caress that passes for a cover drive, the pull off the front foot that sends the fastest ball rocketing to the midwicket boundary, the leg glance as delicate as any played by Viv Richards at his best; the massive square cut, the straight hit, the flick through the legside; you name the shot and Lara played it. There was barely a pause as he ran to 100 and even when he got out his influence stayed on the field. The brilliant strokes of the two young batsmen Marlon Samuels and Ramnaresh Sarwan were inspired by the batting of Lara; and so was the joy that lit the faces of the players when they won, desperately hanging on, by three runs.

That's what has been missing from West Indian sides in the last 10 years. Pleasure in performance, happiness in success, a wide grinwhen a wicket fell, a laugh out loud when a brilliant catch was taken.

They had gone from Laughing Cavaliers to the doleful demons; the smile had been lost. Now Lara's succinct return has put the joy back and at last they seem to be a side with a unity, purpose and desire that can take them close to success in this World Cup.

The tournament could not have got off to a better start with a match that lived up to the standard set by the million dollar opening ceremony. In that wonderful opening even there was a pledge to those of us stay-at-homes that our marathon in front of the television set would be worthwhile and that South Africa would reap the reward for their imagination, their hard work and their enthusiasm. As I write Sanath Jayasuriya is passing his century and all's right with the World Cup though England boycotted its match against Zimbabwe in Harare. Keep politics out of sport. Not if it produces brave men willing to stake their future against the power of the politicians. Lara on fire, Sanath in the mood, true pitches and scores compiled at six an over; we can forget all about the politics and even the variable performances of the umpires.

For all the troubles it looks as if this will be the most memorable of World Cup tournaments. Just the tonic poor old cricket needed.