Brian Lara: Flash of willow, spray of talent, mountains of runs


Brian Lara, born May 2, 1969, was a genius with the willow, a left-handed legend the likes of whom grace the world once in a generation. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the career of the man who thrilled the spectators around the world while piling runs in amounts seldom seen before.

It has not been that long since Brian Lara’s majestic willow stopped etching those majestic arcs from the high back lift to flourishing follow-throughs.The image of the bent knee and the body and bat coiled like a spring are still fresh in memory, as are the flashes of energy bursting forth, the sound of willow against leather like the pop of the champagne cork, strokes gushing out in liquid grace, flowing in red streaks across the field to the boundary.

No man in world cricket made batting look so sublime, so indelibly stamped with genius. If Sachin Tendulkar’s mastery was sculpted by layers of prodigious inspiration built on a platform of the soundest edicts of batsmanship, Brian Lara more or less wrote his own training manuals. With Tendulkar and Ricky Ponting, the basics of their craft could be at least imitated by mortals, although the results and consistency would be way beyond the realm of lesser men. However, when it came to Lara, even efforts at mirroring were beyond the best of them. The twinkling of the toes as he went down to meet the ball, the pull played with a straight bat with both feet off the ground, the angled bat finding gaps through the off side again and again and again. When the man himself advised Ramnaresh Sarwan to ‘Just watch how I do it’, even the undoubted credentials of the other Guyanese batsman failed to do so.

No willow in modern times dripped with as much genius as Lara’s. And never has the word genius been more accompanied by the often-associated adjective — ‘flawed’.

Yes, when Lara was in full flow, it ended in a deluge of runs, cascading along with unrestrained primal beauty like the highest mountain waterfalls. But, sudden plummets saw him stagnating in murky plebeian puddles for way too long.His spates of run-making could denude the entire landscape of cricket, but quite often it was reduced to a trickle by clogging problems created through rifts with administrators, sponsors, teammates and even with his own self.

Throughout his career, Lara battled within a team that increasingly became a shadow of their glorious past. He piled on more and more runs and West Indies kept losing. Once in a while his bat inspired them to epic wins, but that – while always on the surface of remarkable memory — happened very rarely.And all the while he plundered over 23,000 runs in international cricket, with 53 centuries, notching the world record for highest individual score in Tests, reclaiming his record, scripting the first ever 500 in First-Class cricket and finally retiring as the record holder for highest aggregate in Test cricket.

Lara was in many ways a supreme example of how this noble game combines individual heroics within the periphery of team tussle as no other.

The young master

Tenth and penultimate of his siblings, Lara perhaps learnt the ways of a functioning eleven pretty early in his life. His introduction to cricket also happened soon enough. He was enrolled at the Harvard Coaching Clinic at the age of six.

Like most versatile sportsmen he excelled in multiple fields, playing football and table tennis for the junior Trinidad sides. Luckily for us, cricket won through.

One of my lasting memories of Lara is during the World Cup quarter-final of 1996 at Karachi against South Africa. Before the match, there had been the controversies. West Indies had been humiliated by Kenya and Lara, dismissed cheaply, had courted controversy by saying that he was happier losing to a team of blacks rather than a team of whites. In this game, Lara made amends. With Pollock running in early in the innings, his famous bat had come down with that guillotine like flourish, and had met a ball a wee bit shorter than expected. The committed drive, if unleashed, would have flown to the hands of the cover. And there the genius did shine through. The wrists had rolled over the stroke and the dampened flourish had sent the ball trickling in front of the wicket. Did the youthful days of table-tennis play a part? Perhaps, if one dares to dissect genius. Lara had gone on to score 111 of the very best from 94 balls and South Africa had perished by 19 runs.

When Lara was 14, he made 745 runs at 126.16 in the school league.This pitchforked him into the Trinidad Under-16 team. A year later he made his way into the West Indies Under-19 side.

In 1990, aged 20, Lara became the youngest captain of Trinidad and Tobago, and led them to victory in the Geddes Grant Shield. In the same year, he toured Pakistan, making his ODI debut at Karachi and playing his first Test at Lahore. Neither outing was overwhelmingly successful.

Waqar Younis trapped him leg-before for 11 at Karachi. In the third Test, when he replaced Carlisle Best in the West Indian team, Lara made 44 and 5 in a drawn encounter.

The spate of huge scores

For the first few years, his place in the side was not secure, with Keith Arthurton often preferred over him. However, all that became history with his first century at Sydney in 1993. The innings was a sizzling 277, the fourth-highest maiden century in Test cricket, considered by many to be the best ever knock played by a visiting batsman in Australia. It also provided a preview of Lara’s immense reserves for accumulating huge scores. Lara himself considered this the best innings of his career, and as a result, when his daughter was born in 1996, she was named Sydney.

The next year, he scripted history at Antigua, going past Garry Sobers’ 36-year world record score of 365 not out. Lara punished the English attack for 375 as West Indies plundered 593 in the first innings of the drawn Test. Lara remarked that since he was just 24, he would try and beat his record, and also continue to live a simple life. Well, he succeeded in keeping the first part of the promise.

Less than two months later, in the summer of 1994, Lara scaled another unprecedented peak in the history of run-making, amassing 501 for Warwickshire against Durham. Last month when I spoke to Dennis Amiss, he had recalled, “I was the Chief Executive at Edgbaston when Lara played that innings. I was busy with something and when I looked up he was on 100. I became busy again, and the next time I looked up he was past 200. I looked down again and up again, and he was past 300. I said to myself that this was something special and better to see the whole thing through.”

Captaincy, peaks and troughs

When Courtney Walsh was sidelined due to a pulled hamstring during the series against India in 1996-97, Lara captained West Indies for the first time at Barbados. It was a nail-biting affair, and Lara made a crucial 45 in the second innings as West Indies set India a paltry target of 120. The West Indian fast bowlers took advantage of a terrible pitch and the hosts won by 38 runs.One of the eye-catching tactics employed by Lara, which he would repeat often enough during the early days of his captaincy, was to use his two spearhead pacemen from the same end, in alternate bursts of one over each. The mature and refined cricket brain was there for all to see. Unfortunately, over the years, he seldom had the resources to marshal on the cricket field.

Starting from 1995-96, Lara entered a prolonged period of mediocrity. The torrent of runs seen in his initial years had been reduced to occasional oozings. There was a period of captaincy, largely unsuccessful and in some respects disastrous. A win against England was followed by 0-5 decimation in South Africa. When in 1999 the first Test against the Australians at Port-of-Spain ended in defeat, Lara was under pressure as captain and batsman. Apart from the recurrent losses, he had also not scored a century for almost two years. However, in the second Test, the wheel of fortune turned as he scored 213 in a 10-wicket victory.

The next Test at Bridgetown saw what is considered by many to be the greatest innings of his career. West Indies slumped to 105 for 5 after being set 308 to win on a difficult pitch. Lara batted brilliantly the tail, adding 53 for the ninth wicket with Curtly Ambrose and scripted an epic victory with Courtney Walsh holding fort at the other end. He finished unbeaten on 153 in a spectacular 1-wicket victory.

Yet, the inconsistency in his run making was resumed soon enough, not helped by losses to New Zealand which ended his first stint as captain. A hamstring injury also constrained his style, adding to his batting owes.

However, once Garry Sobers had suggested a tweak in his huge backlift, Lara started out on another dream phase of his career from late 2001.

Standing tall amidst ruins

In December that year, West Indies were drubbed 3-0 in Sri Lanka. Lara managed scores of 178, 40, 74, 45, 221 and 130 against a rampaging Muttiah Muralitharan. The final two innings came in the same Test at Colombo and stands as the highest total scored by a batsman in a losing cause. Murali was to suffer again when Lara piled up 209 against him at Gros Islet.

Lara was handed the captaincy again when Australia visited the islands in March 2003. By now he was by far the best batsman of the side, without resources to support him and procure decent results. Heavy defeats followed against the world conquering Australians.

In November 2003, on one of the easier tours against Zimbabwe, Lara hammered 191 from just 203 balls at Harare and overtook Viv Richards to become the highest run-scorer for West Indies in Test cricket.And a month later, with West Indies trailing by 228 runs in the first innings, Lara smashed Robin Peterson for 4,6,6,4,4,4 in an over during a scintillating 202, once again scored in a losing cause. South Africa won the 4-Test series 3-0.

By the next April, Lara had lost the home series to England and was going through a troubled sequence with the bat. Six months earlier, his world record had also been broken by Matthew Hayden who had plundered 380 against Zimbabwe. With every voice and omen against him, Lara fought his way back once again, becoming the first person to break the 400-run barrier in Test cricket. In the last Test of the series, at Antigua, he scored 400 not out as West Indies piled up 751.

He also became the first man to reclaim the world record for highest score, the second player since Don Bradman to score two Test Test triple-centuries, and the second after Bill Ponsford to score two first-class quadruple-hundreds. It had been a long ten year journey since the 375, but Lara had proved himself still capable of the mighty act.He had not been quite successful in living a simple life as he had promised ten years earlier, but had managed to break his own record. Yet, the West Indies innings was prolonged well into the third day to enable Lara reached his 400, and the final result was a stalemate. It set off many voices clamouring about the selfishness of his pursuit for records.

Disputes and departure

A rout in England marred the thrill of going past 10,000 runs, but West Indies did achieve a dash of glory under his captaincy when they won the ICC Champions Trophy in 2004. It was the unlikely pair of Courtney Browne and Ian Bradshaw who steered them home with an unbeaten 71-run partnership for the ninth wicket in the final against England.

However, the next year started with disputes over sponsorship deal. There was a prolonged corporate warfare between Cable and Wireless, sponsors of Lara and six other West Indian cricketers, and Digicel, sponsor of the West Indian Cricket Board. When the other rebel players were dropped, Lara refused to lead the side against South Africa. Eventually he did not play the first Test and lost captaincy to Shivnarine Chanderpaul. However, relieved of responsibility, he scored 196 on his return at Port of Spain to go past Garry Sobers’ collection of 26 Test centuries. In the next Test at Barbados he hit 176.

Two hundreds followed against Pakistan at home. When West Indies travelled Down Under for the Australian Summer of 2005-06, Lara started with a series of ordinary scores, but hit form in his last Test in the country at Adelaide. His 226 took him past Allan Border’s Test match record aggregate.

In April 2006, Chanderpaul resigned from captaincy, and Lara was back at the helm for the third time in his career.

There was the triumph against the Indians in the one-day series, but West Indies lost 1-0 in the Tests. In the decider at Jamaica, Lara seemed more intent on demonstrating his sarcastic applause for groundsman Charlie Joseph rather than sticking around to score the required runs. His tepid surrender at the wicket contrasted sharply with counterpart Rahul Dravid’s exemplary display of application, and it did not really endear him to his followers. Questions about his attitude persisted.

His final foray in Tests came in the away series of Pakistan. It was the standard tale of the great man’s career. Lara amassed scores of 61, 122, 216, 0 and 49 and West Indies were beaten 2-0. The double hundred in his penultimate Test was Lara’s ninth innings of two hundred or more. Only Don Bradman with 12 has more.

The following April Lara announced that he would be retiring from ODIs after the World Cup in West Indies. However, ten days later, with just one match to go for West Indies in the tournament, Lara revised his announcement and disclosed that he would quit all forms of cricket.

The final journey which could have ended in World Cup glory at home turned out to be another saga of disappointment. West Indies lost 5 games and won 4, and Lara managed just one half-century. The final outing was not memorable either, with Kevin Pietersen knocking down his stumps to run him out for 18. West Indies lost by 1 wicket with 1 ball to spare.

A genius in difficult times

Lara’s final figures read 11,953 runs at 52.88 with 34 centuries in Tests and 10405 at 40.48 with 19 hundreds in ODIs.

While the numbers leave no doubt about his undisputed greatness, his playing style allowed even less room for argument. Comfortable against every form of bowling, Lara, with his prodigious footwork, was arguably the best of his times against champion spin bowlers.

He did have his share of problems while facing Andre Nel, Shane Bond and Andrew Flintoff, but given his record Michael Holding’s analysis that he struggled against real pace seems rather uncharitable. But, no one questioned his mastery over spin, and he dominated Murali as no one ever did. It is of little wonder then that Murali considered Lara as the most difficult batsman to bowl to.

Opinions remain divided about the respective claims to the batting throne of Lara and Tendulkar. Lara’s career traversed rare peaks, punctuated by curious lows. In contrast, Tendulkar’s journey had been a constant level of prolonged and sustained brilliance until his recent slump. There will be advocates of consistency who will vouch for the Indian master while perhaps others will remain entranced by the heady memories of Lara at the peak of his powers. And while Tendulkar adapted his style to suit his age and managed to prolong his career, Lara played in the same way at 37 as he did when 21. Did his unwillingness to adapt his approach to his age end in hastening his end? One will never know.

For a long period in his career, Lara struggled with various problems, a lot of them created by himself. And throughout his superb innings, questions were asked about his commitment to the team’s cause and the relationship with the administrators and fellow-players.

In the West Indies, Lara still rules many cricket-crazy minds whereas there are others who swear by the more grounded methods of Chanderpaul. Lara has often been portrayed as one who seldom seemed inclined to convert his brilliance into success for the team. He has been accused of being a divisive figure, entrenched in disputes with the board and his mates. It is rumoured that the fortunes of West Indies in quite a few assignments tripped on his immense, reluctant frame.

However, one feels that Lara is misunderstood — as is the fate of every genius touched abundantly by the divine. He entered the fray with the team still reigning over the world and fitted into the dreams of the islands as someone to take over the mantle of batting brilliance from Viv Richards, Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes. Yet, even as his career graph peaked matching those great names of the past and even eclipsing themquite often, the strength of the side took a beating. The famed fast bowling riches of the team dwindled andaged. And until the advent of a rejuvenated Chanderpaul, it was Lara himself who often carriedthe batting along singlehandedly.

Throughout, his great deeds were scripted against the backdrop of disappointment. He had his squabbles, issues built around his own ego. But even as a cricketing superpower became ordinary before sinking to the depths of a near-minnow, spectators in the Caribbean islands and the world over flocked to the ground to watch them because of one name on the scoreboard — Brian Charles Lara.