Prince turns pauper

The question is inevitable, the concern real. The world of cricket, not just the West Indies, is hopeful that both are premature.

The startling slump that has overcome Brian Lara in the first two Tests of the series here prompted conjecture in today's New Zealand press, as no doubt elsewhere, over whether the condition is terminal for the most compelling batsman of his era and the owner of most of the game's available batting records.

"Lara: Prince now the pauper", read the headline in the Dominion Post. "Special powers desert ageing Lara," proclaimed the New Zealand Herald. The comments follow Lara's scores of 5, 0, 1 and 1 in his four innings, a total of seven runs from the 23 balls he has received.

He fell in the first Test in Auckland to the only two balls he faced from Shane Bond, the spearhead of New Zealand's attack and a high-class fast bowler. His first ball dismissal in the second innings, bowled leg-stump, was only his third such indignity in his 122 Tests. But Bond has been missing from the second Test at the Basin Reserve, eliminated on the morning of the match by a debilitating virus.

Instead, Lara has gone to lesser combatants, to the left-arm swinger James Franklin fourth ball in the first innings and to the mild medium-pace of Nathan Astle sixth ball in the second. Both were to uncertain edged drives that yielded catches to slip and backward point. The esteem in which he is universally held was evident in the prolonged and generous ovation from all around the ground that accompanied him to the middle, both in Auckland and here.

The general sense of disappointment at his early demise yesterday was palpable as he walked off, briefly raising his helmet and gloves in acknowledgement that it would be his last appearance in Wellington. "I tell you, there was an audible groan all around the room when he was out," said Brian Hastings, the former New Zealand batsman who was in the members' dining room along with several ex-Test players, among them Alan Davidson, Neil Harvey and Ashley Mallett of Australia.

It was as if Pavrotti had suddenly lost his voice yet again during a major concert tour. The reservation, as with Lara, would be whether he would be the same again. Lara is approaching 37, a factor noted by Richard Boock in the New Zealand Herald. "It happened to the best of them, starting right back in the days of WG Grace," he wrote. "Wilfred Rhodes eventually succumbed, Colin Cowdrey and Ian Botham tried to beat the odds and lost, even Viv Richards saw the writing on the wall.

"Now it appears fate is poised to come calling for Brian Charles Lara," he added. "Old Father Time makes exceptions for no one, it seems; not even a player who has rewritten the records in just about every genuine batting list, and has scored more runs than anyone else in the history of the game."

What Boock did not note was that Lara has been through such run droughts before and has followed them with familiar plenty and that he was in his usual heavy-scoring mode less than a year ago. His sequence of figures in Australia in 1997-98 were equally meager - 2 and 1 in Sydney, 2 and 2 in Melbourne, 9 in Adelaide. The first four times he was undone by Glenn McGrath, his traditional nemesis. Yet he recovered his composure and his form to round off the series with scores of 78 and 132.

A year later, in South Africa, overburdened by the fallout from the preceding players' strike and by Allan Donald's pace, he had five scores under 20 and a highest of 79 in the five Tests. A few weeks later, he was reeling off his matchwinning 213 at Sabina Park and unbeaten 153 at Kensington against Australia.

He was then appreciably younger but if age is a factor, it was not obvious in his eight Tests last year in which he accumulated scores of 196 and 176 against South Africa and 130 and 153 against Pakistan in the Caribbean and 226 against Australia in Australia. Martin Crowe, the former New Zealand captain and premier batsman, puts Lara's problems down to his lack of preparation coming into the Tests. "New Zealand's one of the most difficult places for batsmen to get acclimatised to," he explained. "Even the greatest players, like Sobers and Viv Richards, couldn't come to terms with conditions."

He recalled that he himself built up to his outstanding home series against the West Indies in 1987 with eight first-class matches in New Zealand's domestic competition. Sir Garry's highest score in seven Tests on two tours, in 1956 and 1969, was 39 and his average 13.10. Richards played only three Tests here, in 1987, with a highest score of 38.

"As I recall it, Sobers (in 1969) and Richards came straight from a tour of Australia," Crowe noted. "It's not far away but the pitches and the overall conditions are like chalk and cheese." Lara's only hundred in five previous Tests in New Zealand-two in 1995, three in 2000-01-was 147 in Wellington when the West Indies amassed 650 for five declared.

"I think Brian would have benefited from the five one-dayers," Crowe said. "He's come into Test cricket in New Zealand straight from the Caribbean and, as I understand it, hadn't played any cricket for something like six weeks. Even from him, that was taking a chance."

Two more innings remain for Lara to prove that Old Father Time hasn't yet caught up with him. The world waits.