Brian Lara tribute - Saluting the batting genius from Trinidad

By Team NewsableFirst Published May 2, 2022, 1:55 PM IST
Highlights

Brian Lara remains one of the greatest Windies batters to grace the sport of cricket. As he turns 53 on Monday, we pay tribute to his intellectual cricketing legacy.

By Dev Tyagi

In the pantheon of West Indies greats, Sir Viv stood for a total abomination of bowlers. He was a bowler destructor of his time. Sir Sobers authored an era of unprecedented greatness with twin virtues of the sport: batting and bowling. But, even before these two Caribbean giants emerged on the scene, there were the three inimitable Ws. Together, Sir Clyde Walcott, Sir Frank Worrell, and Sir Everton Weekes made West Indies cricket glorious in the forties and fifties. 

But, when the past heroes stepped off the stage leaving behind a huge vacuum of talent, prompting the inevitable- “What now”- there emerged a certain Brian Charles Lara from Port of Spain, the prodigal son of the West Indies. Lara epitomised the fighting spirit in an era where Caribbean cricket was fast sliding downhill, their cricket moving towards a spiral decline. 

And, while there were Walsh and Ambrose to save the day and Chanderpaul to soldier on when nothing quite went their way, it was largely a Brian Lara show from the onset of the mid-90s that ensured fans still remained seated in stadia and didn’t leave behind empty seats as West Indies cricket continued to court embarrassing headlines, flirting with utter mediocrity.  

Brian was, as his career transpired from the onset of 1993 until the end, circa 2007, the eternal battler that stood tall for the West Indies. For as long as Lara remained at the crease, the game wasn’t over. There remained hope and a whiff of belief that something truly magical was about to happen.

Among the finest examples of this is the Australia-bound 4th ODI of the 2001 Carlton Series, where in pursuit of Australia’s 278, a score you’d compare to a 320 by today’s standards, Lara went for the chase all alone. He’d end up with an unbeaten 116 of the 211 his team compiled as the game was lost.

There were the glorious punches off the backfoot to McGrath, the gorgeous cover drives against Ian Harvey and the familiar dancing down the wicket to Warne. All signalled true intent carrying the signature of class that only Lara could offer. That Lara, a doyen of batting, stood head and shoulders above the rest in his side was ably determined by what the next best score was: Ridley Jacobs’ 28.

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Many aren’t wrong at all when they say, that he was a hero in the post-Sir Viv, Greenidge, Haynes era, or the warrior from Trinidad and Tobago who tamed opponents instead of receding into a zone of fear where one offered no fight. That Lara took on the best of attacks single-handedly, utterly unsullied by the match situation (or pressure) made him one of a kind. 

In the 1996 Wills World Cup, South Africa ran into the West Indies or rather effectively, their most prudent batsman: Lara. And, in smashing a 111, still considered among the finest World Cup centuries of all time, Lara ensured that the Proteas contingent was off home on the next flight back.

Not that things changed seventeen years after in 2003, as Lara set alight the World Cup opener by hammering a 116 against the Proteas. That, he snubbed the South Africans at their home amid a packed gathering of over 1,20,000 was sheer insinuation. He hit one-handed sixes, cut Donald peerlessly to the cover boundary and made light work of Ntini and Klusener. 

Few batsmen have gone about scoring their runs and scored so many of them with an inherent sense of style as Brian Charles Lara. Little wonder why he was considered a true magician; the whirring blade, the flashing grin, and the crouching stance accompanied by a considerable backlift together aligned to offer a regaling presence at the wicket.

One of his finest Test moments arrived when in the 2003-04 series in South Africa, Graeme Smith came up with the unwise idea of letting Robin Peterson bowl to Lara in the opening Test at Jo’burg. While South Africa took the Test by 189 runs, the big highlights belonged to the Prince, who smashed the spinner to smithereens, collecting 28 from one over.

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It’s still a world record for the most runs scored in a single over in Tests. It must, however, be confessed that it was to cricket, and hence, our good fortune that Lara chose this sport over accountancy or a career in marketing to which he was initially introduced under the aegis of Joey Carew, an early mentor.

And, when the Prince of Trinidad chose cricket, he didn’t just opt for a vocation; he elected to stand on a pedestal of greatness hitherto unseen in the nineties and the preceding 2000s, one that was perhaps felt only in the bygone, halcyon days of the West Indies cricket: The Seventies and the Eighties. 

But, here’s what truly strikes you about Lara. You are truly considered great when you’re both- liked by your teammates and respected (or perhaps feared) by opponents. In Lara’s kitty fell these twin loves stemming from his inimitable greatness with the bat. Justin Langer has repeatedly said, “I loved watching Lara bat!” Michael Vaughan has explained he was a batsman you just couldn’t set a field to. 

The late great Warne called him the finest batsman he’d bowled to. Murali doesn’t consider anyone better than Lara when it comes to playing spin. Sachin famously said, “I’d pay to watch Brian Lara.” Dravid hails him as cricket’s one-of-a-kind entertainer. And, while Sangakkara can sing sermons endlessly exclaiming why Lara was his true idol, Sir Ian Chappell’s once famously said, “It’s hard to choose a particular batsman as being the best, but if you were to put a gun to my head, I’ll say Brian Lara!”

None of them, you could say we’re ever off the mark. Lara presided over a game with that unattainable instinct for domination. Many have been floored by his flair but it was his gluttonous appetite for runs that truly underlined the impact Lara left on the game. 

During his 1993 tour to Australia, a first for him, Lara thudded 277. How often have we seen a batsman scoring his maiden test century that actually culminated into a double ton? Fourteen months later, he went past Sir Sobers’ 365 at Antigua hammering England during a 538-ball-stay at the wicket.

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Forget all of that. When recovering from an injury that threatened to sideline his International career, whilst finding several technical chinks in his batting, Lara toured Sri Lanka in 2002-03. The end result was an ostentatious aggregation of runs: 688 of those from just 3 Tests, which was when Murali and Vaas were at their peak. 

It’s doable to make a world record in the sport. Happens often. It’s usual business, you could say. But, just how many manage to reclaim a record 10 Years after losing it? Some of Lara’s most heroic moments also came at a time when his performances were stymied by a sense of ordinariness. 

When Brian Lara swept Gareth Batty past fine leg on April 13, 2004 - he didn’t just break Mathew Hayden’s 380, he sat right on top of the list of the world’s greatest batsmen. And, he did that with some class and characteristic flamboyance. Moreover, as lethal as he was in his younger days, Lara eschewed none of that charisma and magic even as his career was on its last legs.

In 2006, just months prior to his retirement, when he went to Pakistan for one final time, he creamed a 122 at the Gadaffi Stadium, which was followed by a 216 at Multan. A little earlier, he had been Down Under, where he broke Border’s tally of runs in going past the 11,000-mark in grand style; his stylish 226 came off just 298 deliveries. That same year, circa 2005, Lara also tormented South Africa with a gritty 176 at the Kensington Oval. You just couldn’t say what hundred was better than the other. 

But, a career that reached such massive highs also had its low points, lacked cohesion among the team and often cut a solitary figure with Lara embarking on lone vigils finding little or no support from the other end. While at times his inconsistencies with the bat coupled with constantly oscillating fortunes- 100 in a game followed by a 0 in another - hurt his progress, the lack of considerable batting support at the other end led to dismay. 

This was firmly evident during West Indies' 5-0 drubbing in South Africa 1998-99 season. It was also evident during the 2002-03 series down in Sri Lanka, where none apart from Lara, who scored around forty per cent of the team’s output, held their ground or offered a fight. Few batsmen have been as challenged and cornered throughout the course of their careers as Brian Lara.

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Even prior to hitting the 153 not out at Barbados with the series on the line and Australia in full control, Lara looked out of sorts and perhaps incapable of repeating familiar magic. But, that’s precisely when Lara turned the tables in the 1998-99 series turning into a gladiator as Australia, until then, the predators, became the prey. 

That’s not all. Before he scaled his epochal height; the 400 at Antigua, he had nearly lost his captaincy with the cricketing establishment in the West Indies baying for his head in the light of the team’s disappearing and uninspiring scores. Twice during the England tour of the West Indies in 2004, the West Indies were all out under 100 (in two separate Tests). 

Moreover, Lara’s career was on the line. But again, very few have been able to bounce back from the face of sullen adversities as frequently and obdurately as Brian Lara himself. When nothing except pride was left to protect at Antigua during April 2004 with the threat of England whitewashing West Indies utterly certain, there arose Lara with all his might to turn the fate of a lacklustre series into being one where he rescued the Caribbean pride. 

The magnitude of his focus and the inveterate love for hounding bowlers for long durations of time are evident by an enthralling 778-minute stay at the crease that culminated into 582 deliveries that birthed cricket’s first- and thus far- the only quadruple hundred. That he emerged undefeated even after batting very nearly for two days offers a rich explanation for why Lara is considered such a legend. A batsman that harrowed bowlers exhibiting a very carnal appetite for run-scoring.

For all that he achieved and there’s plenty he did in a whirlwind love affair with the game - nine Test tons vs Australia, a triple and a quadruple hundred against England, 53 international centuries, crossing 1100 Test runs on five different calendar years during his career occasions- you can’t help but wonder whether Lara would’ve been an even bigger colossus had he not been born in the West Indies? Had he been a part of another cricketing entity? 

But then, somewhere down in our hearts, it does appear that whatever happened in his trailblazing career was simply, meant to be. Perhaps, this is why it makes sense that Lara, who lorded with elegance whilst on the pitch, ended his journey with sheer humility, confessing in an interview in 2007 wherein he exclaimed, “I’ve always considered myself a humble servant of West Indies cricket- nothing more!”

Well, from being someone whose first cricket bat was shaped out of coconut to being a legend in whose hand the bat seemed more of a sword with which bowlers were pierced, but with artistry, Lara overcame doubts, and continued to soldier on and utterly entertained. This is when he was so brutalised by the constantly unflinching string of lows Caribbean cricket was plummeting to.  

For all he did on the cricket turf and all he’s doing now, mentoring the next-gen talents plying their trade in T20 cricket’s most famous league, the IPL- all hail the Prince of Trinidad, the inimitable Brian Charles Lara. Happy 53rd Prince!

(Dev Tyagi is a freelance writer who has an unequivocal love for Windies cricket. He is also a Formula 1 buff. He can be followed on Twitter - @caughtatpoint17)

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Last Updated May 2, 2022, 1:55 PM IST