St John's (Antigua): West Indies, once the undisputed kings of One-day cricket, is pinning its hopes on master batsman Brian Lara as well as his young gun understudies to steer it to its first World Cup triumph since 1979. Lara, still the world record holder for the highest first class and Test innings, has recovered from suspected hepatitis, which sidelined him from the tours of India and Bangladesh late last year. "I think we have a very good chance at the World Cup. "I think our performances in India and Bangladesh (where the West Indies won both One-day series) proved the youngsters are coming through," said the 33-year-old Lara, himself a former Windies skipper, and now heading for his fourth World Cup. "Batsmen like Ramnaresh Sarwan and Chris Gayle are all looking to establish themselves and the World Cup will be the ideal opportunity." Despite a 4-3 win in the One-dayers in India, and an easy triumph over Bangladesh, current skipper Carl Hooper has urged caution.
"It was good to see most of our batsmen among the runs, but the conditions in India are totally different from those in South Africa," said the 35-year-old, who came out of retirement in 2001 to try and rescue the team's fortunes. The veteran skipper knows that although he can rely on his batsmen to get runs on the board, he hasn't the same confidence in his bowlers, for whom containment has replaced the confrontation of old. That was seen at Ahmedabad last year where India stunned the tourists by successfully chasing the third-biggest total of 324 in One-day Internationals with five wickets and 14 deliveries to spare. Gayle shone in the One-dayers in India hitting three centuries while Sarwan's first One-day ton was the highlight in Bangladesh. Marlon Samuels' 108 from just 75 balls set up the series win against India but he has been forced out of the World Cup squad through injury. With the retirements of Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh, the bulk of the bowling responsibilities will fall on the likes of Merv Dillon and Vasbert Drakes but with great things expected of 20-year-old quick Jermaine Lawson, who sealed his place after running through India with four wickets to help his side to a series victory in Vijayawada.
Nixon McLean will also feature in the Windies attack. The 29-year-old, who has played 44 Limited Overs Internationals, hasn't been involved since the 2001 home series against South Africa. "McLean is back after not being in the squad, because he's had some experience of playing provincial cricket in South Africa," chairman of selectors Viv Richards said. "In general, I believe it is a team of 'horses for courses' because we have picked six fast bowlers knowing the kind of conditions that we may encounter and where the pitches offer bounce and movement." At the last World Cup, the West Indies failed to make the second stage falling victim to the intrigues of net run rate while, in 1996, its decline as a superpower was brought sharply into focus when it was bowled out for just 93 in a humiliating defeat to Kenya. It recovered to reach the semi-finals that year, but the last time it appeared in a final was in 1983 where it lost to India while, in 1987 and 1992, it never made it out of the preliminary stages. At least this time round, the 1975 and 1979 winners have a chance to redeem themselves having been placed in the relatively weaker Group 'B'.
West Indies plays hosts South Africa in the opening match at Cape Town on February 9 before facing Sri Lanka, New Zealand, Kenya, Bangladesh and Canada with three places up for grabs in the Super Sixes. But the feeling persists Windies cricket is in a state of permanent crisis, a fact illustrated by the embarrassment caused by Runako Morton who was suspended for a year after leaving the ICC Trophy in Sri Lanka last year claiming his grandmother had passed away. She had - but 16 years earlier.