April 26, 2007

Brian Lara – The Greatest After Sir Don Bradman

By H Natarajan

The packed Kensington Oval seemed like a vast, unpainted canvas. Every seat had been taken up in the hope of seeing the great modern artist painting a masterpiece – the last work of his great career. The master, who came in to a guard of honour, wafted three boundaries with that silken touch to raise expectancy levels around the ground. Then, quite unexpectedly, Marlon Samuels played ‘Brutus’. It was the end of an innings, the end of a career, the end of a dream... The expanse of the Oval an unfinished canvas as the master dragged himself and his emotions back into the dressing room.

It was a poignant end to one of the most celebrated careers in cricket history. Lara was leaving the theatre, dejected and rejected. He would have preferred making his final appearance on a Test stage. He had even said that he would like to bow out after West Indies’ tour of England, immediately after the World Cup. In fact, as Lara revealed at the post-retirement press conference: "I know I sat with the selectors in Antigua to pick the team for England, and of course I picked myself." That was in Antigua during the initial stages of the World Cup last month. But suddenly Lara learnt he was not wanted anymore. He decided to make a reluctant but graceful exit rather than face an unceremonious sack.

Nobody can accuse him of hanging around like an ugly adipose in an otherwise beautiful body. In the last 51 Tests, he has scored 19 hundreds. And the 5420 runs he has plundered in this span have come at an average close to 61. There can be no arguments with that kind of effort. Nor were there issues about his fitness, though he is just days away from his 38th birthday.

How would history remember Lara the batsman? He would not be far behind the incomparable Sir Don Bradman in most people’s reckoning. No batsmen since Sir Don raised expectations of exhilarating highs as Brian Charles Lara – not even Sir Viv Richards or that other contemporary genius, Sachin Tendulkar, whose career ran glitteringly parallel to that of Lara.

Sir Viv was a destroyer par excellence while Tendulkar drew comparisons with Sir Don more than any other batsmen since the legendary Australian called it a day 59 years back. But for sheer monumental epics, Lara was supreme in the post-Bradman Era. Something that even the most trenchant of his critics – and he had more than any other modern great – could not deny.

Lara has nine double hundreds, second only to Sir Don’s 12. To place in perspective the achievement of getting a Test double hundred: Lara’s nine double centuries towers over modern greats like Rahul Dravid’s five and Tendulkar, Ricky Ponting, Sunil Gavaskar and Greg Chappell, all of whom scored four each. Even Sir Viv had just three double hundreds while Sir Garry Sobers scored just two. And Lara’s nine double hundreds were inclusive of Test-record breaking efforts of 375 and 400. And the count of the double hundreds could well have been higher had he not perished twice in the 190s. Lara was a glutton for big scores as the 19 scores of 150-plus indicate.

Lara announced his arrival on the world stage with the first of his many classics – an innings of 277 against Australia at Sydney in 1993. He immortalized the knock by naming his daughter Sydney.

The following year, at Antigua against England, he erased Sir Garry as the highest scorer in Test history by scoring an unbeaten 375. The Test stopped momentarily as the great Barbadian strode down the middle to congratulate the young Trinidadian. Less than two months later, he wiped out Hanif Mohammad’s name from the records as the highest scorer in first-class history by plundering 501 for Warwickshire against Durham. Lara’s knock came in 427 balls with the help of 10 sixes and 62 fours.

It’s a measure of his fiery desire and unshakable determination that he reclaimed the Test record he lost to Matthew Hayden within six months. Lara picked the English attack yet again, this time around to not only become the first batsman to snatch back the Test record score but also to break the 400-run barrier in Tests. He thus became the only the second batsman after Sir Don to score two Test triple hundreds and the only player, other than Bill Ponsford, to notch up two 400-plus scores in first-class history.

But one of Lara’s unforgettable, winning efforts came against the powerful Australians in 1988-89 at Barbados. West Indies were hurtling towards an impending defeat at 105 for 5, chasing 308 for victory. But Lara shepherded Curtly Ambrose and last man Courtney Walsh to turn a certain loss into victory. Lara’s 153 not out was later showcased by Wisden as the second-best in Test history.

I dare say that Lara would have earned much greater acclaim than he has had he been playing for a team as strong as the present Australian team or the all-conquering West Indies team under Clive Lloyd. Often times, Lara had to wage a lonely battle. On five occasions he ended up scoring more than 50% of his team’s score – an effort matched only by Sir Don.

The fact that he has scored 5000 runs in Tests lost by West Indies – a number that’s 2000 runs adrift of the man following him – speaks volumes of the quality of the team he has been for the greater part of his career.

Three of his double hundreds came in lost causes. That’s two more double hundreds than what any other batsman has achieved in lost causes in Tests.

Then there was that series in Sri Lanka when he scored 688 runs - 178, 40, 74, 45, 221 and 130 not out in six innings; 42% of his team’s effort – against an attack powered by Chaminda Vaas and Muttiah Muralitharan and yet ended up on the losing side. Few batsmen outside of India have played Murali with as much ease as Lara has.

I think it would be fair to say that Lara was the best batsman of his times in Test while Tendulkar was the finest of his era in One-Day Internationals. Both were late bloomers in ODIs – Lara scored his first hundred in his 41st ODI while Tendulkar scored his maiden century in his 79th appearance. But while both went on to make a huge impact in the abridged version of the game, Tendulkar was magical – just like Lara was in the conventional format. But as in Test matches, Lara’s ability to score big was seen in ODIs as well, which is reflected by three scores in excess of 150 – an effort that is matched by just four other batsmen in the overs-limit game.

Lara was God’s gift to the sport. His sublime skills were beyond even comprehension of ordinary mortals. There was something magical, something divine about the purity of his play. The back lift was exaggeratedly high, but when the willow met the ball, everything was in perfect harmony – balance of the body, feet movement, the follow through of the bat, everything. The dexterous ease with which he picked gaps, the sweetness of his carpet drives, the wide variety of his cuts, the strokes that he played from the book and many outside it in the entire expanse of the ground all drew ecstatic oohs and aahs. Even suffering bowlers could not help enjoying the breathtaking beauty of his work.

As Angus Fraser, the former English fast bowler turned journalist wrote: “I used to enjoy watching Lara bat even when I was playing against him. But only when I was not bowling! It was a privilege to stand at mid-off and observe his brilliance, but because it was one of my team-mates who was getting clattered through the covers, I dared not smile. Occasionally a colleague and I would look at each other after the ball had thudded into an advertising board, purse our lips and emit a little "ooh". We knew what each other meant and realised how fortunate we were.”

When one thinks of batsmen with big-hitting prowess, the images that flash in the mind are that of Shahid Afridi, Sanath Jayasuriya, Sourav Ganguly, Tendulkar, Lance Cairns and Inzamam-ul-Haq. Few may think of Lara. But the fact is that only the six named above have hit more sixes in ODIs than Lara. He has 133 sixes to his credit at a better average hit per game than even Tendulkar and Inzamam and power hitters like Ian Botham, Kapil Dev and Virender Sehwag to name a few. The Trinidadian can tear into any attack as Robin Peterson found out at his cost at Wanderers in December 2003 when he carted South African Robin Peterson for 4,6,6,4,4,4 to break the world record for the most runs in an over. In this mood, Lara can be doubly dangerous as the Pakistanis found out last year when he scored the ninth fastest century in Test cricket - off 77 balls.

A retirement tribute may not be the best place to dwell on the negatives, but a correct and complete picture cannot be arrived at without encompassing every aspect of the personality in review. Lara was not the most popular of men outside Trinidad. He had problems with fellow players, with the West Indies Cricket Board and with the media, which included many former players from the Caribbean who were openly critical of his ways. His dalliance with beautiful women attracted widespread media attention. He once arrived late for a Test after a late-night birthday bash. There were also unproven allegation of links with bookmakers. One thing can be said without fear of contradiction or bias: Lara was a genius, albeit a flawed genius.

With the highest-ever score of 400 not out and 375, with most runs scored (11,953), with two triple hundreds, with just one hundred less than the most number ever, all in Test matches, and with 10,405 runs (fifth highest) and 19 hundreds (sixth highest) in ODIs, Lara has been a colossus. As the Prince of Trinidad rides into sunset and into his palatial mansion to spend quality time with his young daughter, he knows that despite what his critics say, he is the man most people without fear or favour, without influenced by parochialism and politics would rank as the greatest after Sir Don Bradman. And that’s saying something.

Adieu, ‘Sir Brian’. You will be missed.