Our Cricket Heroes – Brian LaraGaneshbabu Venkat |
With a short stature and nimble footwork he cut, drove, hooked and pulled, fast bowlers and spinners were both treated with disdain, everything about him had an aura, even his stance and for 17 years one name was synonymous with West Indian cricket, Brian Charles Lara. He had people’s expectations reach a crescendo when he came out to bat and carried the hopes of a fragile team on decline for all those years. With a high back-lift and his peerless ability to pierce gaps in the field marked by sublime timing was indeed a sight to behold. It would be safe to say that cricket watching experience would not be complete until you have seen an innings by an in-form Brian Lara.
Born as the tenth child in a family of eleven Lara took to football before he decided to take up cricket.Football’s loss was cricket’s gain and he first shot in to prominence with a measured knock against Barbados in the Red Stripe cup against an attack consisting of Joel Garner and Malcolm Marshall for Trinidad and Tobago in 1986-87. However his first date with international cricket was when the Indians toured West Indies during 1988-89. Playing for the West Indies under 23’s he tore in to Narendra Hirwani, West Indies’s tormentor in the preceding series at India and scored 182 runs. However he had to wait another year before his Test debut when he got his opportunity against Pakistan in 1990 and faced up to Imran Khan, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis.
With the mass exodus of quality players like Viv Richards, Gordon Greenidge and Malcolm Marshall, West Indies cricket needed a talisman and Brian Lara turned out to be the one. He caught the attention of the world when he cracked 277 at the SCG during his maiden tour of Australia in 1992-1993; it was his first century in Tests and one of his memorable knocks that preceded his 33 other Test hundreds. His penchant for big scores came in to the fore during an eventful two month period in 1994. He displayed supreme batting form coupled with amazing concentration and consistency when he dispatched the English bowling attack to all parts of the Antigua Recreation Ground to break the 37 year old Test record of Sir Gary Sobers to score 375 Runs. During the English summer later that year he scored an unbeaten 501 for Warwickshire against Durham to record the highest First Class score ever. In those two months Brian Lara had achieved what many had done throughout their career.
Call it fate or destiny, Lara had by now become a household name and indeed it was not long before the wheel would come the full circle. During the 1995 West Indies tour to England he said cricket was ruining his life and was going to retire, he followed that up by walking out of the West Indian tour of Australia during 1995-96, the cricket world was left to wonder if we would ever see this flawed genius again. Nevertheless he made a grand comeback and played one of the best ODI innings in the 1996 world cup against South Africa during the quarter finals at Karachi which stopped the South African juggernaut on it’s tracks. However West Indies crashed out of the semi-finals, but Lara had left his indelible stamp on the 1996 world cup with that special knock.
Lara had his tryst with the poisoned chalice of captaincy for the first time in 1998 and started off with a 3-1 Test series win against England; however that joy was short lived when they were thrashed 5-0 in South Africa, the first white wash for West Indies in a five Test series. What followed this was the perfect script for him, his captaincy was under probation for the Australian series and they were blown away for 51 at his home town Port-Of-Spain, the signs were ominous and another white wash was looming large.
Against this backdrop, the most admiring and amazing quality that he possessed came in to light when he was pushed to this tight corner. He bought out his best in adversity, especially when he or his team became the cornered tiger. He responded with such form that single-handedly carried his team back into the four-Test series. He scored three centuries (213, 153*, 100) in consecutive Tests, with such authority and class that he regained his spot atop the world batting rankings. If his 213 at Sabina park was sublime his 153* at Barbados was probably the best innings played in a Test match, that took the West Indies home and gave them an unexpected 2-1 series lead. This match epitomized the true greatness of Lara. With Ambrose and Walsh keeping him company he launched an all out attack on Shane Warne, Glen McGrath and co. to take them past the finish line. Riding on his brilliant and superlative form they drew the series 2-2 against Australia. He was probably at the peak of his prowess during that series. It went downhill for him after that and the 1999 world cup.
He did not enjoy a great world cup in 1999 when West Indies were dumped out after the completion of the first round following which Lara led West Indies on a tour to New Zealand only to come home empty handed after white washes in both Tests and ODI’s. By that time he had had enough and relinquished the captaincy citing “modest success and devastating failures” and not only that he also quit the game for an indefinite period of time.However he came back during the West Indies Tour of England in 2000 and for that period from Early 2000 till late 2001 he was not his usual self and looked a mere mortal although he managed to score a couple of hundreds albeit in a losing cause.
However the Sri Lanka series in 2001 set the clock ticking again, Lara returned with a bang under the captaincy of Carl Hooper, and he once again reminded the world of his genius, smashing 688 runs in three Tests in Sri Lanka – 42 percent of the West Indian run total for the series. Lara batted with the sort of authority and sense of purpose that had eluded him for a long time scoring a double century and two hundreds and the mystery spinner Muttiah Muralitharan was tamed in his own yard. It has to be said that the umpiring in that series was appalling and with some luck Lara could have at least given the West Indies a win in that Test series. That series probably defined the second coming of Lara, his batting was nothing short of genius and it defied all coaching manuals. To put his record in figures Lara Averaged 58.24 in 57 tests from January 2001, a clear six point differential from his career average including some memorable knocks against Pakistan,South Africa and SriLanka after the SriLankan tour of 2001.
When everyone thought he was back at his very best a horrific collision with Marvan Attapatu during that tour put him out for another year and he made a brief comeback during the ICC champions trophy in 2002 before a mystery illness laid him low yet again. He would not come back till the 2003 ICC world cup when he stamped his authority immediately with a century in the opening game against South Africa although he failed to turn up after that knock and West Indies crashed out of the world cup in the first round.
After the dismal showing in the 2003 world cup Lara regained the captaincy for the second time, a job that many hoped he was finally to handle successfully. A true captain’s effort, Lara scored 1344 runs in the calendar year, second only to Ricky Ponting. In the process he became the highest run scorer in West Indies cricket history and the fastest from any country to reach 9000 Test runs, accomplished two innings faster than Sachin Tendulkar, However during that time he had lost his world record highest score to Matthew Hayden’s 380 late in 2003, but in the mould of a true champion, he stole it back six months later. Once again it was at the Antigua Recreation Ground and once again it was the English bowling on which he feasted. He not only became the first man in the history of Tests to regain his Test batting record, but the first to score a quadruple century and finished unbeaten on 400 which helped the West Indies avoid a white wash at home. Nevertheless all was not well with the team and West Indies lost seven out of eight Tests to England that summer although they managed to win a world event after 25 years, the ICC champion’s trophy in 2004 under Lara’s captaincy. It has to be said that his inspirational captaincy was largely instrumental in that win and the icing on the cake was provided by Courtney Browne and Ian Bradshaw.
Amidst the contract controversy between the WICB and the players’ association in early 2005, Lara was replaced at the helm by Shivnarine Chanderpaul. The fortunes of the West Indies team which followed were abysmal, Although Lara become the highest run getter in Test cricket surpassing Allan Border during that time, by the start of 2006, Lara was once again named as captain for the third time in his career – a clear record for the sport, He started off brilliantly winning the ODI series against India and Zimbabwe at home, reaching the ICC champions trophy finals 2006 and reaching the tri-series finals in Malaysia the same year. However the records in the Tests left a lot to be desired. But with Lara announcing that he would retire from ODI’s after the 2007 world cup there was some renewed optimism that it would be a decent swansong for him, but as it turned out West Indies who started off in spectacular fashion imploded and crashed out of their own party and he called it a day from all forms of international cricket at the end of the world cup.
There is no question that when on song he was the most attractive batsman.He was not as consistent as some of his peers, However Lara offered great viewing pleasure compared to a Sachin Tendulkar or Ricky Ponting. He was a true entertainer in every sense of the word . Not only did he play some memorable innings in Tests, He played some truly brilliant ODI innings as well. He did not have a great series during the 1996-97 Australian tour but during the ODI series he reeled of a few ODI innings that were beyond belief. Especially his 90 against the Australians at Perth and his back to back centuries against Australia and Pakistan were scintillating to say the least. His 153* against Pakistan at Sharjah and his twin centuries against South Africa in the 1996 and 2003 world cups were stuff of the dreams.
Brian Charles Lara was never a demi-god like Sachin Tendulkar, who has a consistent run scoring ability nor was he a run-machine like Sir Don Bradman, rather Lara was a pure entertainer in the quintessential sense. He was a charismatic and a gifted batsman who thrilled the audiences with his audacious stroke play. Hindu mythology has it that gods would come out of heaven occasionally to witness battles by great mythological warriors like Lord Rama and the great Arjuna, There is no doubt If there were ever cricketing gods they would certainly be tempted out of their abodes to witness this pure genius of a batsman in full flow. And it is precisely because of this one tends to savor the brilliance of Lara all the more than his peers. For, who knows if we’d ever again get to feast on the deeds of such a genius on the cricket field.