There could hardly be more compelling evidence that talent without consistency, dedication and discipline is almost worthless. When you look at West Indies' shocking freefall from invincible world champions to the whipping boys of the established Test nations in less than a decade, it is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that the talent that was once thought to be in almost unlimited supply in the tiny territories had almost completely dried up.

Yet while quality bowlers - a vital ingredient for any successful team - are in desperately short supply, the facts and figures do not support the contention that the batting line-up, which includes the peerless Brian Lara, is utterly hopeless. However, the frequency of heavy defeats precipitated by top-order collapses suggests the problems that beset the once feared Caribbean batting line-up have as much to do with the mental approach as with any technical deficiencies.

Of the established top five, only Wavell Hinds (33.16) averages below 40. As expected, Lara (53.50) leads the way, followed by his successor as captain, Shivnarine Chanderpaul (46.24), recently deposed vice-captain Ramnaresh Sarwan (41.95), and the hard-hitting Chris Gayle (40.04), whose monumental 317 on the Antigua featherbed in the final Test lifted him into the 40-plus standard.

Even in the context of modern Test cricket, where batsmen are piling up runs at much faster rates than at any other time in the history of the international game, the West Indies batting line-up is potentially one of the best in the world. They certainly have showed on a few occasions what they are collectively capable of: establishing a new world record in chasing 418 to defeat Australia, amassing 751 for 5 against England and 747 against South Africa in the last three Tests played at the venue now dubbed the Antigua "Records" Ground. There are other instances on foreign fields - most notably when they gave South Africa a scare after being set a seemingly unattainable 441 at Cape Town in 2003-04 - where the batting has responded magnificently under pressure.

But more often than not it is that nagging inconsistency, that almost chronic inability to withstand prolonged periods of sustained pressure from the opposition that forces them, as it were, to capitulate with disastrous consequences. Lara and Chanderpaul (only just) preceded the dramatic demise of the golden standard, but Gayle, Hinds and Sarwan all made their Test debuts in the 2000 home season when, ironically, Lara was serving a self-imposed sabbatical, having given up the captaincy months earlier following his team's humiliation in New Zealand.

Indeed, there remains a wide open and intensely heated debate over Lara's impact on the team. No one questions his class. His statistics lift him to the highest level, and when he is in full flow, as on his return to the team against the South Africans when he responded with brilliant hundreds in successive matches, there is no greater sight in the game. Yet some have speculated that it is his almost complete domination in the middle that, paradoxically, cowers not only opposing bowlers but his batting partners as well.

The theory has been offered that Lara's imposing presence in the line-up creates a mental comfort zone among the other, younger batsmen. But when he is not around, for whatever reason, they galvanise as a unit and show much greater determination and application. Immediate support for that argument was available in this series when, with Lara, Gayle and Sarwan ruled out for the first Test in the midst of a sponsorship dispute, West Indies amassed 543 for 5, with Hinds and Chanderpaul compiling double-centuries. With the temporary resolution of the impasse, Lara returned in the second Test to score 196 in a blaze of glory, yet West Indies could only total 347 in the first innings and were beaten by eight wickets after crashing for 194 in their second innings. A repeat followed in Barbados -Lara plundering 176, West Indies only totalling 296, and then being mauled by an innings to lose the series.

A more sinister argument put forward when discussing the Lara factor implies that he is a disruptive element in the team; a selfish individual spurred on only by individual goals. Ridley Jacobs's surprisingly candid comments in support of that view have further fuelled the debate. Yet while there is no doubt that Lara has become an almost larger-than-life figure amid the rapidly diminishing status of West Indies cricket, to apportion so much blame to him for the failings of others conveniently ignores the fact that most of his contemporaries in the batting line-up play to their own tune, essentially ignoring or openly disrespecting any other person of influence.

It goes way beyond mere runs, totals and batting averages; it is a matter of attitudes shaped by societies and conflicting values. But whatever the issues beyond the boundary, the harsh facts are that for all of their collectively impressive statistics, the West Indies batsmen have failed abysmally time and time again, only to give their long-suffering fans a belated glimmer of hope with dazzling displays after a series has been lost.

In the 65 Tests played since that 1999-00 home season against Zimbabwe and Pakistan, West Indies have lost 34. Coincidentally, they have been dismissed for totals below 200 on 34 occasions as well, while there are five other instances when they were routed for double-figure scores during that period - the lowest of the very low being the 47 against a Steve Harmison-inspired England at Kingston in 2004. It has become almost routine for West Indies to pile up a formidable first-innings total only to collapse in a heap the second time around. There have been no fewer than 15 instances among those 34 defeats in the past five years that can be attributed almost totally to a second-innings capitulation. This would seem to point clearly to an inability to cope with pressure situations.

In essence, West Indies now find themselves - save for a few high-profile occasions - with what is a crop of fair-weather batsmen, who are spectacular and dominating when the pitches are flat, the bowling ordinary, and the outfields lightning-fast. But when the going gets tough, invariably they get going as well: back to the pavilion. Batsmen hardly ever win Test matches - Lara has been a notable exception - but they can at least save them. This lot has been an abject failure in that regard.

Again, there is no question that they have the talent, for the sight of the rampaging Gayle and Hinds, the elegant Sarwan, the majestic Lara and even the gritty Chanderpaul - who boast 61 centuries and 130 half-centuries between them - at their best are worthy of remembrance.

Unfortunately, for West Indians and West Indian fans the world over who still cling to golden memories of glorious batsmanship, those moments when these players are at their best are too infrequent and often too inconsequential to lift their team from the mire.

Fazeer Mohammed is a writer and broadcaster in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad