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What excuses now?

BRIAN Lara has been shown up -- and this time by the tailenders in his own team. There have been excuses aplenty trotted out by the West Indies captain for the abysmal showing in South Africa but now most of them will hold no water.

Chasing 421 for a win, the top order buckled in and keeled over. Ninety-three for six it was and had the rest of the team gone the same route, Lara would have had a readymade excuse -- the team wasn't pulling together when it came to batting.

But this time, Ridley Jacobs, Nixon McLean and Mervyn Dillon showed that they have some pride in wearing the maroon cap. Even an injured Curtley Ambrose made 19. And the top order were shown up for the irresponsible lot they were.

There were no terrors in the pitch and no cause for alarm when any bowler came on. Jacobs, McLean and Dillon cut the margin of defeat to 149 runs and showed that with either application or swashbuckling methods it was posible to score runs against South Africa. In fact, it was the highest total which the West Indies have made in the four Tests so far. In the first innings, Otis Gibson played a sterling role to ensure that the follow-on would be saved.

So now what excuses can Lara offer? There is no remedy for batsmen who refuse to play as the situation demands. There is no way one can even come close to drawing a Test if people shirk responsibility. And there is no way a Test can be won by batsmen who refuse to observe the elementary rules of batsmanship.

There have been countless instances in the past when the West Indies have been up against it and the captain has come good. Clive Lloyd did a rescue act in Bangalore in 1974 in his first Test as captain; he did it too often to forget. Gary Sobers nursed his cousin David Holford through a 274-run partnership in 1966; he did something similar with Wes Hall. Richards led from the front on more than one occasion. They were all proud West Indies captains.

Lara did it once when he was just an ordinary player. He came to the crease in the third Test of the 1993 series against Australia with the score at 31 for two and facing an Australian score of 503. The West Indies had just managed to draw the first Test and had lost the second. But Lara played a magical innings that day, 277 glorious runs, shared in a big stand with Richardson, and the series turned. The West Indies levelled the series by winning the fourth Test by a solitary run -- the narrowest win in Test history -- and then crushed Australia in the final Test. Sadly, as captain he is yet to do anything even remotely like that. He is yet to even get a hundred after becoming skipper.

There is little doubt that the South Africans deserve the 4-0 lead they hold and the 5-0 drubbing that the West Indies now seem definite to receive. If it takes the wind out of a few sails and helps to bring a couple of swollen heads back to normal, it would be well worth it. Else, the Australians can look forward to continuing the trend and handing out a 4-0 thrashing to the West Indies.

Indeed, Lara's team can ensure its place in the record books by setting another record -- the exact opposite of Lloyd's achievement. They only have to lose 11 Tests on the trot. And that should be well within their ability (or lack of it). They would all remain in the record books for a long time after that.