Lara: 'This three-Test series could be the turning point'
"I can sense that there is a hunger in the team," Test cricket's leading run-scorer told a wide-ranging media conference yesterday. "I can sense that the guys are embarrassed after their performance in the one-day series [won 4-1 by New Zealand]. I sense that this three-Test series could be the turning point and I sense, even in myself, a desire to win," he added.
Similar sentiments were expressed by Bennett King, West Indies' coach, a day earlier. "We're looking forward to Test match cricket," King said. "We believe we can make an impact. The belief within the group that they can perform against the Black Caps has been very firm."
Irked by the New Zealand media's denigration of the West Indies' showing in the preceding National Bank Series of ODIs, Lara charged on his arrival last Friday that it showed a lack of respect for a team with a greater cricketing legacy than New Zealand. He regarded it as significant that the team pulled off its only victory the following day, an encouraging augury for the Tests.
The match holds special meaning as it is, to the day, the 50th anniversary of New Zealand's inaugural Test victory, over the West Indies at the same Eden Park in 1956. When informed that the surviving members of New Zealand's team on that occasion would be special guests and asked whether he would prefer not to "rain on their parade", Lara quipped: "I'd love to."
Lara's optimism, like King's, is based on hypothesis rather than on the team's record of eight defeats against one victory in the last 11 Tests and their eighth position in the ICC Test rankings, against New Zealand's fifth. But, like King, he is encouraged by the attitude of the young players. "We've got quite a few young guys in their early 20s - Fidel Edwards, [Denesh] Ramdin, [Jerome] Taylor - who are eager to get out there and represent West Indies," he said. "They're full of talent," he noted. "It's just a matter of getting together as a team, winning situations at different times in the match and seizing the opportunity when it presents itself and going with it."
Lara has been proclaimed here as West Indies' main hope of competing in the Tests but, he noted, that doesn't produce a winning formula. While he said he felt "ready", in spite of the month-long break from the game after the end of the Carib Beer Cup, he was conscious of the contrast between his personal success and the team's overall failure.
"You go on Cricinfo and you see there's somebody who has the most double-centuries in defeats and that's myself," he said. "It's all about a team situation, getting everybody to perform, the bowlers geared up to take 20 wickets, the batsmen to get 400-500 runs in the first innings, 600-700 over the match."
Stressing that his motivation was always team success over individual records, Lara said it was no different this time. "When I go on tour, I'm not going to score 300-400 runs or two Test centuries," he explained. "I'm going to try to win as a team and to drink champagne with the team. Unfortunately, it hasn't been a regular occurrence but all along it's been my motivation to turn the corner and start winning again," he added. "To leave Napier [after the last Test] as the winners of this series would be the greatest thing."
It would also be a boost for beleaguered captain Shivnarine Chanderpaul who replaced Lara last March after Lara's withdrawal from the team for the first Test against South Africa over the sponsorship dispute with the West Indies Cricket Board. "Chanderpaul has had a rough period so far as captain and we want to rally round him and bring a smile to his face," Lara said. "We're looking forward to that."
But, as Lara observed, it is easier said than done against opponents who "want to show that they can dominate the series and who are talking that way." New Zealand's selectors have been roundly criticised here for the choice of an inexperienced top three in the order and the omission of Lou Vincent, one of their two century-makers in the ODIs. One opener, Jamie How, and the No.3 Peter Fulton are yet to play a Test. Hamish Marshall, who will open with How, has had nine in which he has scored two hundreds and averaged 48.58, but he has never gone in first. King's response was that the West Indies bowling is equally inexperienced in Test cricket. Although he is a seasoned one-day cricketer, with 35 matches to his name, Ian Bradshaw, the left-arm swing bowler, is yet to play a Test. Edwards, the 24-year-old spearhead of the attack, has 20, and the other fast bowlers, Daren Powell 15 and Jerome Taylor three.
Lara called the enforced absence of Dwayne Bravo's wicket-taking medium-pace bowling, because of a strained left side sustained during the Twenty20 International here February 16, "a big negative to our strength", even if the all-rounder is chosen only as No.6 batsman. He was unconcerned with the make-up of the New Zealand team. "We've got to focus on the 11 guys who play on Thursday and see what we can do," he said. "If they feel they've got the right team, that's the one we've got to match up to and the one we've got to defeat."
The first significant rainfall of the tour forced West Indies to practice indoors yesterday and kept the covers on the special prefabricated, drop-in pitch all day. When inspected on Monday, it carried a substantial covering of grass and King said the head groundsman informed him it would be fast and bouncy. Given the sluggish pitch of variable bounce in Saturday's ODI, that appears unlikely.