ONLY a fool would be sentimental about the game after the revelations of the last few months but if the West Indies star batsman Brian Lara is found to have been involved in anything like match-fixing, then it would indeed be the sucker punch for many cricket lovers from the Caribbean and elsewhere.
And I am not talking about fanatics, about people who cannot stomach a game where the Windies lose. (Such people, incidentally, would be suffering indigestion more often than not these days.) No, I am talking about people who know the history of the game, those who understand the place which the West Indies occupy in its order and observers for whom the current generation of cricketers is not the end-all and be-all of their cricket watching.
There were allegations that Lara was involved in dubious activities sometime back but he denied them and then it was all quiet until last weekend. Then the report of the Indian inquiry into match-fixing was leaked and with it came the allegations that both Australian and West Indian players are involved in the same game. The cricket website total-cricket.com cited Lara as figuring in the report, claiming that he had been in close touch with Indian bookies.
While the fact that any other cricketers are involved in this racket would be disturbing, what would happen to the legions who watched Lara singlehandedly win two Tests in the Caribbean last year? Or those who watched him produce sheer poetry in Sydney in 1992-93? It doesn't matter if those innings were played before this whole spectre arose, the stigma will attach itself to everything a man has done. Just imagine what the odds would have been on the West Indies winning the third Test of the series against Australia last year; they began the final day needing 223 more to win and at one stage slipped to 105 for five. That Test has been acclaimed as one of the greatest in the annals of the game. Where will it stand if the reputation of the principal actor is tarnished?
A few months back, one could question the credibility of a report coming from an Indian law enforcement agency but that does not apply any longer after the Hansie Cronje affair. If anything, one has to take leaks from any report from this country more seriously than from other cricket-playing nations.
There hasn't been even a peep out of the Caribbean so far but then Lara's name has figured only on one website. Two one-day games have been mentioned - the one which the West Indies lost to Kenya in the World Cup of 1996 (played in Pune, in south-central India) and the semi-final against Australia in the same tournament, played in Mohali in north India. The West Indies lost to Kenya by 73 runs, being bowled out for 93 and lost to Australia by five runs; they were chasing 208 for a win in the semi-final and lost after being 156 for two with Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Lara well entrenched.
The next two weeks will reveal a lot, some of which is suspected, some of which is known, and a lot of which has never even been dreamt of. Australia will have something to face up to as well but it is the West Indies who will suffer more if the involvement of their hero is revealed. Cricket is much more than a game in the Caribbean and many things will be forgiven but not something like this. One hopes for the sake of the millions whose only enjoyment in life is watching the West Indies on song that it does not come to this.