Lara in limbo as World Cup party pops
Statistically it ain't over till it's over, but to all intents and purposes West Indies have bowed out of their own World Cup in Grenada. They produced an insipid performance against a South African side that had been stung by the embarrassment of their defeat against Bangladesh last week and came up with a vengeful retort. For all Brian Lara's remorse in the press conference afterwards, where he apologised to the Caribbean people for dashing their dreams, the side with the pride was not the one which had just been beaten.
"We did not stand up to the pressure," Lara, who made just 21 before chopping Jacques Kallis on to his stumps, said. "It's not much excuse, but South Africa played better than us. They were also in a do-or-die situation, but they came up trumps. They showed their class and that's why they were No. 1 until a few days ago. They were outstanding, and we were outplayed."
As frank assessments go, it was hard to quibble with Lara's take on the situation. Since the Super Eights portion of the competition got underway, West Indies have played and lost to Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka and now South Africa - four sides ranked higher than them and, not surprisingly, the favourites to qualify for the semi-finals.
But the shame is not so much losing to the better sides, but the manner of those defeats. Dropped catches and slipshod ground fielding littered this performance, and an air of inevitability hung over the proceedings from the moment AB de Villiers and Jacques Kallis began teeing off in the second Powerplay. Though the last rites were never quite administered, thanks to Daren Powell's hard-hitting finale, this contest was over in the minds of the players as early as the 15th over of South Africa's innings.
"They laid a foundation and pounced on us," Lara said. He had entered the match to a chorus of familiar accusations about his egocentric captaincy, and finished it with little ammunition with which to fire back. "When you're set 357 to chase, [your opponents] must have done a really good job to get to that position," he said. "It can't just be one or two balls dropping out of guys' hands."
That much is probably true, although the instability in the West Indian team - and specifically the bowling attack - can hardly be a source of encouragement when faced with batsmen as rock-solid as the South African line-up. For the fourth Super Eights match running, the three frontline seamers were, like a particularly malevolent fruit machine, a completely new combination.
Against Australia, the chosen three were Powell, Jerome Taylor and Corey Collymore. Against New Zealand, Dwayne Smith inexplicably joined Powell and Collymore. Against Sri Lanka in Guyana, Ian Bradshaw came in to partner Powell and the recalled Taylor, only for Taylor to be bumped out again to accommodate Collymore. Lara called it "opting for experience", but once again the jackpot proved elusive.
And then, of course, there was Lara's inexplicable use of the third and final Powerplay, which was held back and held back and held back, until it was finally called upon at the start of the 45th over. "It did not slip my mind," Lara said, although he clearly had less idea of what to do with it than Graeme Smith, whose hard-hitters were positively drooling at the prospect of free boundary hits in the death overs.
"It just kept dragging on and dragging on," Smith said, "and it was always going to give us a massive opportunity." Seventy-seven massive opportunities, in fact, from which there was no coming-back for West Indies. "There were some good overs," Lara said, "but it was always going to be tough to defend against set guys if you don't put the ball in the right areas. We paid for it."
West Indies' listlessness today was troubling for many reasons. The enormity of the contest had been magnified by South Africa's defeat against Bangladesh, and a win would have pushed them right up into the reckoning for the semi-finals. The crowd that Lara had so criticised during the Antigua leg in particular was out in force this time, and vocally supportive as well. But the scratchiness of the on-field effort could not merely be attributed to "host-nation phobia", as Lara termed it.
There are murmurings of too much off-field partying, and with a Test tour to England following this tournament, a contractual dispute is also looming large in the players' minds, although Lara insisted that money issues were something to be dealt with at much higher levels. "At the end of the day we've got two games left," he said. "Whether we're out of the World Cup or not, we've still got to go out there and play with pride, and play to win.
"We've got to try to regroup and show the West Indian public that there is fight," he said, as he dropped a very broad hint that the end of his one-day career is nigh. "I've had a very fruitful career and enjoyed playing for West Indies in the one-day arena, but what is more important is the state of the younger players. Cricket's going to go on, and I hope the players are going to be up to it, mentally and physically." Alas, they haven't been up for it for their own World Cup.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo