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Old March 7, 2004, 03:13 PM
Arnab Arnab is offline
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Default Michael Atherton dissects Lara

Flintoff is England's best hope of holding back Lara

The scale of the problem might not be quite Bradmanesque but Michael Vaughan knows, as did Douglas Jardine more than 70 years ago, that the batting of one man stands between success and failure.

If England can find a way of halving Brian Lara's effectiveness - as Bodyline did for Bradman - few would bet against England retaining the Wisden Trophy. Given that I captained three full series against Lara, during which he averaged 79, I might not be the best person to dish out advice. But here goes.

A modern captain has a much wider array of tools than were available to Jardine to help analyse an opposing player. If Vaughan is doing his job properly he will have watched Lara's most recent batting in South Africa on video.

He will have asked Duncan Fletcher to talk to South Africa's coach (Eric Simons is a protege of Fletcher's) about how they looked to bowl at Lara and he will have studied Lara's run charts to see where he scored his runs. Essentially, there are three areas for Vaughan to analyse: statistics, Lara's technique and his psychological profile.

All the statistical analysis will tell him that Lara is a great player and has recently been at the peak of his form. Before this series Lara has scored 9,157 Test runs at 52.32. Since he regained the West Indies captaincy 12 matches ago Lara has averaged 72, scoring six hundreds in 23 innings, virtually halving his hundreds/innings ratio to 3.8.

Not much solace in study so far. To look deeper: does he have a weakness against any bowler or type of bowler? In common with other fine players he seems to have a problem with Glenn McGrath, who has dismissed him 13 times - six more than anybody else. Angus Fraser (seven), Andrew Caddick, Darren Gough and Allan Donald (six) are next on the list.

None of those English bowlers are in the Caribbean, although to say Lara had a weakness against them would be stretching the point. Memorably, Fraser and Caddick were part of the attack that troubled Lara all the way to 375 in Antigua.

A week later, the Trinidadian government gave Lara a mansion overlooking the savannah and we reckon his fourbedroom suites are named in honour of England's attack. The Tufnell suite is, of course, the room where guests can have a bit of fun.

In Tests, spinners have dismissed Lara for a single figure score only four times in total. It confirms what I have always suspected: Lara is one of the best players of spin I have seen. It suggests also that Ashley Giles should pass on the opportunity of attacking Lara when he first comes to the crease - unless conditions are absolutely in his favour. For the greater good I'm sure he won't mind.

Out of all his dismissals, 64 per cent have been caught. He has been caught 11 times by Ian Healy, Mark Waugh (six), Nayan Mongia (six), Jack Russell (five) and Alec Stewart four times: four wicketkeepers and a second slip. Interesting, but those statistics would not be much different to that of any other front-line batsman.

Statistics, then, are sending Vaughan some messages: to send the reliable Ashley to graze for a while; to make sure his seamers bowl a tight off-stump line (no width is essential as there is much more chance of inducing an edge from a straight bat rather than horizontal stroke) and that we have our best catchers behind the wicket.

Video analysis should give him a better idea of how Lara actually plays. Are there, for example, any obvious weaknesses? Which of our seamers should we bowl when he first comes in? And should we have any special fielding positions?

To watch Lara is to watch an instinctive, rather than methodical, player. When he finds himself out of position he relies on his eyes and wonderful hands to get him out of trouble. Early on, he tends to jump back and across his crease. And I mean jump, so that his head (and therefore eyes) are often bobbing up and down.

Along with his unnaturally extravagant backlift (perhaps an early yorker would be a good idea to put that to the test) it means that there is, potentially, a fair amount to go wrong. He is the opposite, if you like, to the methodical and minimalist Marcus Trescothick.

If the ball is swinging Matthew Hoggard and/or James Anderson would be good choices to attack Lara. He moves so far across his stumps early on that he sometimes finds himself too far to the off-side of the ball. The occasional bouncer is important to ensure he remains jumpy and pinned to the crease.

But it is the full-length ball, swinging back into the West Indian's pads, that is the danger. Easy, eh? In the Caribbean, though, swinging conditions are about as likely as a vow of silence from Clare Short.

Lara did look in tremendous form in South Africa, but as the series progressed Andre Nel began to cause the left-hander some problems, dismissing him in his last four innings. Not only that, but he often made Lara look uncertain what to play and what to leave, especially when he bowled around the wicket taking the ball away to the slips and occasionally bringing one back in on the angle.

Nel is a tall, strapping fast bowler, with an ungainly, open-chested action. Ring any bells? It should, because he is not a dissimilar bowler to Andrew Flintoff. Technically, Flintoff has a better action than Nel, but because he, too, is open-chested it allows him to bowl around the wicket and still get the ball to move away from the left-handers.This is a definite option for Vaughan, once the shine has gone from the ball.

What about Lara's temperament? Can he be put off his game with a choice phrase? How does he react to pressure? My own experience of Lara is that he is not a man to wind up. I remember Michael Slater telling me that Lara's great double-hundred at Sabina Park against Australia in 1999 was inspired by his incandescence at Australia's unwillingness to let him use the nets before the start of play.

At Old Trafford, during the 2001 series in which Lara had started poorly, I referred to him as Gough's Bunny. After he heard the comment he said, "Thanks Mike, that's just what I needed," and he proceeded to take us apart. Likewise, his performances as captain of the West Indies suggest a man who is inspired, rather than fearful, of pressure. Don't give him extra motivation. Keep him sweet.

As you might have guessed there are rarely Jardine-like solutions for dismissing great players like Lara. A captain, though, must make the right calls: attacking him early with the bowlers most likely to cause problems, having his best catchers in the right positions (slips, gully and backward point are key for Lara), having a variety of options to fall back on and ensuring his team are on the same wavelength when it comes to reacting to Lara.

Vaughan must also have plans for the other batsmen. For the young sensation Dwayne Smith, for example, of whom the England captain will have no knowledge, but who scored the best hundred I have seen from a player on Test debut. Now, he really can play.
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Old March 7, 2004, 03:36 PM
chinaman chinaman is offline
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A link to the source would have been nice.
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