Wednesday, June 25, 2008

My Favourite Cricketer: The Prince, Brian Lara


I’ve decided to borrow an idea from 'The Wisden Cricketer' for today’s entry.

It is impossible to pinpoint exactly why we gravitate towards certain players and not to others. Everybody who watches sport needs someone to support and get behind, and beyond parochial loyalties our reasons may have little logic behind them. My adoption of Brian Lara as a personal sporting icon was not an intellectually reasoned decision. I am not West Indian, nor do I even come from a traditional cricketing culture. It was however a choice made with all the assured certainty of a child and has remained unshaken to this day.

Put simply, Brian Charles Lara is the reason I fell in love with cricket. The first time I saw him bat, he was in the process of compiling his magnificent first test century at Sydney. Prior to that I had evinced little interest in the sport and only tuned into the match by chance. After seeing just one stroke, a brutal cover drive off the back foot, I was spellbound. As introductions to batsmanship go that 277 could hardly have been bettered. It certainly won one impressionable six year-old forever to the game in a way that a turgid Kallis knock or a pugnacious Ponting one never could. Geoff Boycott recently asserted that Ponting, though statistically superior, could never aspire to the class of Lara and Tendulkar. When I consider whether a Ponting innings could ever have had the effect on me a Lara one did 15 years ago, I see his point.

From that moment onward every innings would be followed, be it on television or radio, in the paper or more recently on the internet. Whilst others were more concerned with Premiership results I sat rapt in front of the television living every ball of Lara’s record breaking 375. Regular updates on the radio from Edgbaston kept me clued into the 501*. Though nothing more than a whippersnapper, I knew here was a once-in-a-lifetime genius whose exploits I was privileged to grow up witnessing.

As a batsman, Lara defied definition. In short, he had it all. Possessing the sublime touch worthy of the most elegant stroke-makers, Lara found gaps like nobody else. The effortless ease and regularity with which he missed the fielders made a mockery of opposing bowlers and captains alike. When Lara was on the go it simply didn’t matter where the fielding skipper stationed his men: the prince would avoid them.

A single over was enough for Lara to showcase the entire breadth of his extraordinary abilities with the willow. On his final tour to South Africa back in 2003 he added another record to an already comprehensive resume when he deposited Robin Peterson for 28 runs in one over. The power was there, evidenced in two enormous maximums and a venomous straight drive; so too was the finesse, the final ball delicately cut one-handed past point after a mock charge forced the bowler into changing his length. At a time late in the day when most would have been looking to protect their wicket, Lara decided as only he could to go on the rampage.

Such moments were typical. Lara, more than any of his contemporaries, was simply thrilling. Perhaps it has become old-hat to marvel at that dynamic back-lift, but to me it remains pure theatre and an exemplar of all that makes cricket worth watching. Once one saw that bat rise high into the air ready to lash the ball to the boundary, one could only conceivably be watching one man. Then followed the exaggerated shuffle, the jump back and across that became more and more exaggerated as the years went on and once again Lara would be where he belonged, in the spotlight at the centre of attention.

In a better team who knows what Lara may have achieved? Had he regularly come to the crease with the pressure off and a platform built at 150-2 rather than in the mire at 2 down for 15, he could have been un-stoppable. But then, perhaps he would have actually fared worse. Like the first great Caribbean cricketer George Headley, one gets the feeling his most recent successor thrived under the spotlight, thrived in the knowledge that his performance could be the difference between stunning success and abject failure. True there were in fact too few instances of the former, but whilst Lara was at the wicket one always felt there was a sniff of a chance, no matter how hopeless the situation seemed.

Indeed, Lara’s career was defined by a string of one-man shows. He virtually single-handedly orchestrated the greatest Test match series I have ever seen, the pulsating 2-2 stalemate against Steve Waugh’s mighty Australians in 1999. Everything about that rubber remains indelibly etched on my mind. How the sickening low of 51 all out in Trinidad led to dire predictions of the death of Caribbean cricket. How a publicly chastised and probationed Lara instigated a Lazarus like recovery from the grave in Kingston, where he and Jimmy Adams batted for one entire, glorious, sun-soaked day. How he brought the cricketing world to a standstill with his finest innings, the sensational unbeaten 153 that led to an almost unbelievable Kensington Oval triumph by one wicket. How yet another whirlwind ton in the final test wasn’t quite enough to regain Sir Frank.

Of course for Lara every breathtaking pinnacle was offset by troughs as desperate as the former were fantastic. The unsuccessful captaincy stints, the mauling in South Africa, the late nineties form slump…but let someone else document the lows. I am unashamedly blinkered in my view of the great man. He was, is and always shall be my favourite cricketer. Enough pundits, begrudgers, opponents and even team-mates have been more than willing to belittle his achievements and besmirch his legacy. He may not have been perfect, but didn’t deserve a fraction of the abuse meted out to him over the years. Lara it seems was one of the games great polarising figures: one either loves him or hates him. I unapologetically belong in the former camp.

They say it is best to go out at the height of your powers. Leave the stage when you are still the best and have people begging for more. Lara certainly did that. His last four years in test cricket were amongst the most prolific of his seventeen-year career, during which he amassed 16 Test match hundreds. The last of these was one of his best: a stunningly free-flowing quick-fire double century in the heat and dust of Multan. His very final innings however was almost fittingly anticlimactic, undone as so many times before by an unthinking team-mate. Nonetheless, his parting shot to the Barbados crowd was worthy of Russell Crowe’s Maximus in Gladiator: Have I entertained you? he bellowed. The response, like that of the baying Roman crowd in the Coliseum, was a most definitive yes.

For me cricket and Lara were intrinsically and inextricably linked growing up. I never knew the latter without the presence of the former. Like some genial uncle, the next great innings was never far away, ready to comfort and console. It may have hurt to see the Windies lose heavily time and again, but the merest glimpse of that Lara magic would keep me coming back for more. When he prematurely hung up his boots last year it was more than an end of an era. From my perspective it was the end of the game as I knew it and loved it.

Attempting to sum up someone of Lara’s magnitude with a pithy closing line or an apt conclusion is no easy task. Many years ago, however, Sambit Bal managed it better than I ever could: ‘For light and song, for bliss and glory and for lifting the soul, who else but Brian Lara?’

photo courtesy Ukexpat - reproduced under creative commons license

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