Hanging by a thread in the next few days is the career of Brian Lara, the West Indies captain and world record-holding batsman. Unless the West Indies selectors have a change of heart, Lara will not be touring England this summer or anywhere else again.
In one-dayers, Lara has already got his resignation in first, by announcing he will retire from this format after the World Cup. In Test matches, it is certain that Lara, 37, will never again be entrusted with the captaincy. And now there is a growing feeling in the Caribbean — and nobody has stirred more feelings here in recent years — that Lara will not be selected for the tour of England next month, even though he himself has been banking on it as a grand farewell.
Lara was never selected to be the West Indies captain for this World Cup. The selectors who know their stuff — Gordon Greenidge, Clyde Butts and Andy Roberts — chose Ramnaresh Sarwan, the Guyanese former prodigy who has enough about him to begin the long process of regeneration. It was only when the president of the West Indies Cricket Board stepped in — and like most cricket administrators, Ken Gordon knows far more about business and politics than the game and its players — that Lara was appointed.
It was a hideous miscalculation which ended with the West Indies being knocked out of the World Cup by South Africa on Tuesday. Lara set an example all right, on and off the field, but of the wrong kind. He came into the West Indies team in the early 1990s, when there were still great cricketers, and he was taught his responsibilities. In his public speeches he always says the right thing; what he does is another matter.
The West Indians’ practices, according to regular observers, have been the shoddy and undisciplined consequences of late-night partying. When Lara was supposed to be selecting the West Indies World Cup party in Antigua, he was in Barbados where he has a growing portfolio of property and interests.
When the captain was supposed to be implementing a coherent strategy, he sent South Africa in to bat in the key encounter on Tuesday and condemned his team to chase under do-or-die pressure. When he was supposed to be tactical, he delayed the third power-play until the 45th over of South Africa’s innings, unprecedentedly late, and conceded 77 runs in five overs.
Of no other batsman in recent years has the word ‘genius’ been so often used as on Lara. Beginning with the high back-lift which Sir Garfield Sobers recognised as like his own, the beauty of Lara’s batsmanship has surely never been excelled. The world records of 400 not out in Tests and 501 not out in first-class cricket were garlands for an Olympic talent.
But the genius has had a fatal flaw: instead of an infinite capacity for taking pains, he has shown an almost equal capacity for being one.
It began in his early twenties when he destabilised Gus Logie so that he, Lara, could become the captain of Trinidad and Tobago. He destabilised Richie Richardson when he was captain of West Indies, then Courtney Walsh, before falling out with Carl Hooper. These machinations are as much a part of the Caribbean currency as the US dollar.
Now, if the West Indies selectors are allowed to select Lara may not be included in the touring party for England at all. The expected captain will owe him no favours. Lara dropped Sarwan for the first Test in Pakistan last autumn, after Sarwan had made a century and four fifties in his six previous Tests. Lara once identified Sarwan as his vice-captain and successor, before switching his public support to Chris Gayle.
Next month’s four-Test tour of England is coming far too soon for the West Indies, so complete is their disorganisation at every level. Except in Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, they have not won a Test match overseas since Edgbaston in 2000, such is the disintegration over which Lara, more than any other man, has presided.
If Lara is dropped, however, the process of regeneration can at last begin, and it is possible the world will yet see again West Indian cricket at its best — in other words, cricket of the most exciting kind.