Lara likely to bat higher in the order
When Brian Lara dropped down the order in the tournament, several eyebrows were raised. He was, after all, far and away the best batsman in the line-up, and the others had not really proved themselves consistently - Ramnaresh Sarwan aside - to hold places in the middle-order ahead of him. But now, looking back with the ample benefit of hindsight, it has proved a master-stroke. His controlled 71 against Australia, which set up a win, was the proof that his thinking had worked.
Come final, though, there's a chance that Lara could come up the order - not because the West Indians are trying to pull a fast one, but because they have been playing according to the situation all tournament, and this has been integral to their success. With pitches and conditions varying from venue to venue adaptation has been the key to success, and West Indies have done that so far.
And Ricky Ponting will, by no means, be surprised if Lara reverses the trend and comes out to bat early in the do-or-die final. "If they lose early wickets, I don't think he'll come in that early. But if they get off to a good start, I think he'll come higher up the order," said Ponting. "We saw the game against India when he probably regretted the way in which he came so low because the game nearly got away from them. I don't think they will do that again."
It's always dangerous to say that a team has turned a corner, or come of age, because these days it takes just one bad tournament to undo all the good work done before. But there have been times in the past when West Indies have been over dependent on Lara, and collapsed in a heap once the opposition got him out of the way. It has not been the case here. Dwayne Bravo has scored his first ODI hundred, Runako Morton has gone from longest duck to unbeaten near-hundred against world champions, Ian Bradshaw is on the verge of toppling Brett Lee as the No. 1 bowler in the ICC rankings . Lara admitted that this team's resurgence was well on course. "It's been tremendous. All the guys have been supportive," he said. "Some have played 50 Tests and 100 ODIs. There can only be one captain at any time, but there must be a group of leaders within any team. It's not just on the field, but in practice, in team meetings, you have to be able to see all of that to realise the contribution some of these guys make. I'm happy with the way the nucleus of this team is coming together. I'm very confident of the immediate future of West Indian cricket. I just hope it does not break down at any point."
In this day and age certainly - perhaps it's been the same all along - cricketers are sensitive to criticism, and calling a team unpredictable is not always taken well. But Lara certainly didn't seem to mind the fact that his team were tagged thus. "I love the tag unpredictable, which means that no opposition, no matter how strong they are can think that they're going to roll us over," he said. "Of course Australia are the favourites. They're world champions, No. 1 in the world, going into the match you'd be unwise to think otherwise. We're looking to excel and carry that through to the final. The two games where we've had hiccups in this tournament have both been after we've qualified for the next phase."
The Australians, especially in big matches of this kind, have a tendency of turning up the aggro a notch or two, Batsmen go after bowlers early on, not allowing them to settle. Bowlers get under the skin of batsmen with a chirp or two. But Lara did not thinking it was wise to try and fight fire with fire. "I just think you need to play sensible cricket. The Australians come and try to impose themselves on any opposition they play," he said. "You have to play intelligent cricket, match them at all times, and take that extra step when the right time comes. Playing with flair or attacking cricket is not going to scare the Australians. You have to play sensibly, put in a good team effort. The smarter team is going to win."
Very early in the tournament, a senior journalist who has watched Lara play over the years, suggested that there was something different about him when he addressed a press conference. He suggested that the arrogance that came with youth and stardom had given way to something more mellow. And the manner in which he answered a question on the Ashes - a fairly absurd one given he was playing in a big final the next day - saying, "I have a final to play tomorrow, sorry," showed that this was certainly a different Lara from the one of a few years ago, when he might lost his cool a touch. The beauty about Lara, though, is that the slowing of reflexes that inevitably accompanies aging has more than been compensated by the gaining of experience. He can still bat with the same authority and fearless power that he showed all those years ago.
The one thing that underscores the change in Lara as a man, though, is that he talks so little of himself and so much of the team, and even after attending approaching a dozen press conferences of his this tournament, you don't get the feeling that it is purely management-speak, like you do with some other international captains or coaches. "We have grown as a team, there's a lot more self belief in this camp," he said. "Clive Lloyd has come in and we have some good coaching staff but the ultimate thing is - the fact of the matter is - that the guys are believing in themselves a lot more and they want to prove themselves as worthy contenders of retaining the trophy."
Anand Vasu is assistant editor of Cricinfo