India v West Indies, 9th match, Champions Trophy October 25, 2006

Lara's fitness remains the buzz

Brian Lara: doubtful for tomorrow's big game © Getty Images

While Brian Lara would not totally rule himself out of tomorrow's match against India, the manner in which he spoke about his back spasms and the recovery process since the last match against Australia suggested that he was all but out of contention for the game. "I am not sure yet [about whether I will be fit]. I trained for the first time on Tuesday and the back was a bit sore," he said. "The final decision will be made on Thursday. I am sure we still have an eleven that will still do the job. I'd love to make it. I am not going to do anything that will disable the team."

Lara made a superb 71 against Australia as West Indies won a thrilling match, but could not take the field in the second half of the match. The West Indies depend heavily on him, and while it was widely believed that he would be part of the mix even if he was not 100% fit, Lara said this was not the case. "It is important to field a fully fit eleven," he said. "Our record against India has been impressive and we see it as a step forward, a psychological advantage over India. This match is huge. The crowd will be supportive of India but it is these conditions that will show the real mettle of a team. The guys are fully aware of that."

Without a frontline spinner in the squad, Lara's concerns about the dew were obviously nowhere near as serious as that of his Indian counterpart. "It is important to play your best team. Sri Lanka used two spinners productively on Tuesday and South Africa did not use any," he said. "As far as we are concerned, we know what to do and pick the team accordingly. We will try and put up an eleven that will ensure us a win."

When it was put to Lara that the West Indian middle-order had struggled when he and the other big guns at the top of the order had failed to fire, his response was sharp. "I can only go as far back as to our last game against Australia and there the numbers five and six got a good partnership," he said. "We are going to focus on the positives and move forward. This team is constantly improving. I am focussed on winning and keen to contribute to it, if not physically in the middle, then from the sidelines."

Lara also suggested that this squad had characters in them who could step up and do the job in case someone was injured. "We've seen the depth in the team," he said. "See, despite Corey Collymore not being around (Collymore is back in the West Indies to be with his wife for the birth of their child), we have had guys who've filled the gap admirably. We have players we can call upon. Having said that, we still want to pick from among 14 players. When we get that, it will be a great advantage."

At the moment, though, this game against India is crucial to the West Indies, and Lara did not try to underplay that. West Indies have had a run of success against India in recent times, beating them 4-1 at home, and then again in Malaysia. Lara hoped that beating India in India would give his team an even bigger boost. "If things go well in the World Cup we are going to be meeting India in a very crucial stage in the second round," he explained. "This match is huge. Yes there are factors to be taken into consideration - It's not Malaysia, it's not West Indies, it's Ahmedabad, and the crowds will be fully supportive of India. I think in these sort of situations you can see the real mettle of a team and that's what we are focusing on to ensure that we come out on top in this particular match. Because it will augur well if we can do that."

It almost went all pear-shaped for West Indies early in the tournament when they were bowled out for only 80 against Sri Lanka. But they've bounced back admirably since. "After losing to Sri Lanka, we went back to the drawingboard and worked out situations, what we wanted to do against the best team in the world and executed that very well," said Lara. "Now we are moving forward, and this stage of the tournament is crucial, as we come out against better teams continuously. We know where we are at the present and feel very comfortable in the zone."

When Lara walked around, it certainly appeared that he was suffering from a very stiff back. And with all the talk of his injury, it overshadowed every other aspect of the conversation surrounding West Indies' match against India. Ramnaresh Sarwan will be preparing himself mentally to be leading the side, if it comes to that. Shivnarine Chanderpaul, who has recovered from food poisoning, will be bracing himself to shoulder more responsibility should Lara be forced to sit out. "I'd love to be out there tomorrow, but that decision will be taken at the last minute," said Lara. And while all the indications are that he is likely to miss out, everyone will be holding their breath till that last minute that Lara spoke about. After all, how many times has it happened in cricket that someone, a critical player at that, is believed to be fit or unfit a day before a game, and the reality changes dramatically when the first ball is bowled. Cricket, they say, is a mind game, and it is perfectly legitimate for a captain to try and gain and edge through psychological ploys. Could this just be another one of those?

Anand Vasu is assistant editor of Cricinfo