Brian Lara has been a peerless batsman © Getty Images
Saturday could be the last time we watch Brian Lara in an international match. Anyone who has a feel for cricket will mourn his loss, for no batsman in the last 15 years has brought more joy to spectators. But paradoxically, West Indian cricket is unlikely to miss him.
Lara's legacy will be deeply flawed as he has been the most mortal of geniuses. Any human, however talented, must be granted his indiscretions, and Lara has always been a complex character. His batting, a hostage to his moods, has touched extraordinary highs and inexplicable lows. But that's the essence of Lara and the peaks have been so rewarding that it's been easy to overlook the troughs.
To judge Lara's contribution to West Indian cricket, it is essential to separate his batting from his leadership. Lara the batsman is peerless, light years ahead of his compatriots who have struggled to match the deeds of their predecessors. Lara the leader has been diametrically opposite. Aloof and whimsical are the mild words used to describe him. The stronger ones are selfish, vindictive and unbecoming.
It is hardly a secret that Lara was foisted as captain by Ken Gordon, the president of the West Indies Cricket Board and a fellow Trinidadian, after the infamous row between the board and the players over sponsorship in 2005. A majority of the then selection committee didn't want him and none of the members of the present one want him either. But Gordon, in a move that will be familiar to most cricket fans in the subcontinent, imposed his will on them, and might want to do so again. However, his hold on the board has been weakened following the World Cup debacle, and if the selectors have their way, Lara will not make the West Indian touring party for the trip to England in May. Not as captain, not even as player.
While it would be unfair to blame one person, however powerful, for the abjectness of an entire team, those in the know firmly believe that the rot begins right at the top. Lara, they say, has never allowed the team to settle down, and worse, done his best to undermine any player who has crossed his path.
Of course, barring occasional outbursts against the selectors, he has been a model of rectitude and decorum in public, always choosing the right words, and hitting the right notes. In his press conference before the game against Bangladesh at Kensington Oval on Thursday, he repeated his apology to cricket fans and talked about the disappointment of the Caribbean nations. "The need to show character" was a phrase that came up repeatedly.


Two faced: as a leader Lara has been selfish and vindictive © Getty Images
Yet, Lara, who will retire from one-day internationals after the tournament, stands accused of destroying the character of the team more than anyone else. On the field, he has been eccentric and unpredictable and some of his tactics have bordered on the bizarre. Some of his improvisations, like opening the bowling with Wavell Hinds and Dwayne Smith, have borne fruit, and he has been persuasive in arguing that he has used innovation as a surprise weapon due to the lack of too many real ones at his disposal. "I wouldn't have needed to experiment if I was leading Australia," he said during last year's Champions Trophy.
But some of the selections defied logic and cricket sense. For much of last year, Ian Bradshaw and Jerome Taylor were the team's best one-day bowlers. Bradshaw was outstanding with the new ball, often bowled his overs through and conceded about 40 runs. Taylor was beginning to master operating at the death, delivering at pace and firing in yorkers. Both have found themselves dropped repeatedly and Bradshaw has been used at first change and sometimes even at the death where he has been easy meat at his pace.
Lara picked the rookie Lendl Simmons as a batsman in the World Cup and put him at No. 8, and in the crucial, near knock-out match against New Zealand, he chose to hand a one-day debut to the 19-year-old Keiron Pollard while dropping Marlon Samuels, in whom he had expressed faith only a few weeks earlier.
Off the field, he has set a poor example to his team-mates when it comes to behaviour and personal work ethic. Genius must receive an allowance, and tales of Garry Sobers turning up at a match after a night of revelry abound in these parts. But Sobers played in a different era and he was captain for only a short part of his career. Lara has led a bunch of impressionable and far less talented individuals much prone to the risk of being led astray.
And he has been severe on the players who he has come to dislike. Ramnaresh Sarwan, a captaincy candidate who has a far better record in both forms of the game than most current players, had the mortification of being dropped on the tour of Pakistan and others have had their batting positions shuffled. Some are believed to be dead against him, while many others live in fear. It is not only a team lacking faith in its own ability, but lacking faith in their leader.
The cricket world will be poorer for Lara's departure, but for West Indian cricket it could be the way forward. It's a tragedy. Lara ought to be remembered as one of the most special batsmen in the history of the game and not a captain whose whims and sullenness destabilised an already feeble team.
Click here to comment on the article.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo and Cricinfo Magazine