| South Africa’s Jonty Rhodes gets a hug from Nixon McLean of the West Indies as they walk along the jetty in Cape Town Saturday. (AFP)
Cape Town, Feb. 8 (PTI): South Africa fear mercurial Brian Lara more than others as they take on a vastly-improved West Indies in the opening match of the World Cup here Sunday.
It was Lara who secured for the West Indies a place in the 1996 World Cup semi-finals at the expense of South Africa with a smashing century.
With Lara declaring his intentions to bounce back after illness and establish himself as the number one batsman in the world, South Africans were treating his threat very seriously indeed in this World Cup.
His clash with Allan Donald under lights would be a classic moment because of the duels they have enjoyed between them in the past. Donald claimed his team had a recipe to dismiss Lara cheaply and pointed out that the left-hander has never scored a hundred at Test level against South Africa. But Donald knows that when Lara is in on song it is very difficult to contain him.
The pitch, of course, promises a keen fare, if Newlands groundsman Christo Erasmus’ belief proves right.
“On Thursday, I thought it would be a bit slow, but today I am more convinced that there will be more speed and carry. It will not be an encounter during which winning the toss, will automatically mean victory,” Erasmus said.
That’s where the genius of Lara comes into play, more so clearly.
Asked about Lara’s preparation for the match, Ricky Skerritt, the West Indies team manager said: “Brian is fit, ready and committed.” Skerrit admitted Lara was under pressure to deliver at the big stage.
“Critics at the highest level of cricket are in agreement that Lara is a genius. Obviously there is pressure on him to perform. Some of that pressure is of Brian’s own doing because he has high levels of excellence and would like to maintain them,” he said.
Asked about Lara’s supposed inability to stay focused and motivated at all times, Skerritt said Lara has had a range of injuries and “situations” that had taken him away from the game for a while.
West Indies captain Carl Hooper said: “I think the pressure’s going to be on the South African side.”
Hooper was also looking to the last time the two teams met on a cricket field to assert they were no longer pushovers. In a sensational Champions Trophy match in Sri Lanka last year, West Indies lost to South Africa off the last ball. “The last time we played South Africa, in all fairness we should have won,” said Hooper.
But South African captain Shaun Pollock was not too impressed with the Caribbeans. “The West Indies are a quality outfit, but so are we,” said Pollock. “They have been playing on low, slow wickets on the sub-continent so they will have to adapt to South African conditions.”
Groundsman Erasmus said he was not worried about the effect the opening ceremony would be having on the playing surface for the match. “It will make life a bit more difficult. One could expect the outfield to be somewhat whiter because of all the traffic. We had about ten rehearsals the past three weeks,” he said.
Peter Kirsten, coach of Western Province, said the dew that traditionally made life awkward for sides batting second at Newlands, would probably not be a factor tomorrow. “February is our hottest month and the dew would probably only play a role in March,” he added.
SOUTH AFRICA (from): Shaun Pollock (captain), Herschelle Gibbs, Gary Kirsten, Boeta Dippenaar, Jacques Kallis, Jonty Rhodes, Mark Boucher, Lance Klusener, Nicky Boje, Allan Donald, Makhaya Ntini.
WEST INDIES (from): Carl Hooper (captain), Chris Gayle, Wavell Hinds, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Brian Lara, Ramnaresh Sarwan, Ricardo Powell, Ridley Jacobs, Vasbert Drakes, Mervyn Dillon, Jermaine Lawson.
UMPIRES: S. Venkatraghavan (Ind), Daryl Harper (Aus).
Third Umpire: Peter Willey (Eng). Match Referee: Ranjan Madugalle (SL).