Cricket is not merely a sport. Not for those die-hard fans that remain glued to the television sets world over till the final ball has been bowled delivering the much-wanted verdict. But have we ever wondered what makes a truly great fan or a vivid spectator of the game of cricket? Inarguably, it has to be the relentless might of the cricketing hero the fan comes to represent and root for. A question that all cricket fans debate endlessly into the sleepy after hours of midnight even in the 21st century is whether it is a batsman game or a bowler’s game. While one is not sure about the exact and sheer totality of the existence of the well informed classicists who fathom it as a bowlers game even today, given most rules favouring the bat over ball, there lies a patina of passionate devotees of cricket who see it as an ethereal contest between the world’s best batsmen. And they can hardly be blamed for it. For the shining legacy of cricket has time and again been decorated by certain batting exploits that remain incomparable, set ablaze by sheer greatness and are seminal to lifting the game to peaks of glory.
If you were a witness to an era that featured inarguably the world’s greatest batsman Sachin Tendulkar regardless of the fact that you were in the subcontinent at Asia, or Down Under, an era that only recently came to an end with the legend’s retirement, then it is implausible not to have heard about the name of a certain individual who held to his own bravely as the one nearly close to matching Sachin’s greatness. Forget about singing in tandem with Indian Cricket fans where if one is a cricketing legend then he has to be Sachin-like and remember there is an improbable bar of clearing the legend tag- it’s calls you for being Godlike. This other individual gained glory in all parts of the world for constructing a stellar career, his personal landmarks enriching the poor existence of the game in his part of the world with timeless legends, his nation badly craved for. In the Caribbean as in the rest of the world he is known as a certain Brian Charles Lara but for possessing a gift for the sublime, he is nicknamed “ The Prince of Trinidad”.
Lara's long career that began in 1990, unwillingly came to a sombre, yet truly remarkable end in 2007 at Barbados during the limited over's World Cup at the Caribbean, where fans were united at their disconsolation of the great man's retirement from the game. As the tributes came pouring in, so did heaps of praises, even from the harshest of critics who were now bandaging one of cricket's greatest as an 'all time great ', forgetting about the stench that their ink had generated earlier labelling the Trinidadian lad 'selfish'. Criticism is a folly of the ignorant but the brave knows how to respond, giving words a rest. And in Lara's case, more often than not his greatest defence to unrealistic criticism aimed at him, was always the bat. 17 years in any game can be a long testing time and for most part of its duration, Lara's career gave the cricket fan much to remember and ultimately cricket itself a feast of timeless jewels with which the sport can coronate itself truly as a batsman’s game. It is as if the gods were displeased with the disposition of their own sublime architecture having produced a Sobers in the same era as that of Everton Weekes, a Malcolm Marshal in the same era as a Holding, Roberts and the great Sir Viv Richards, Brian Lara found himself alone at the throne of cricket’s kingdom at the West Indies, with no other support batsman even coming close to his awe- inspiring talent. Some dreamy fans could well speak about Carl Hooper or a Jimmy Adams but they are better off day dreaming to label cricket an average batsman’s sport. Akin to the historic battlefield during the second World War where legendary Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was the only herculean force commanding the 7th Panzer division in Africa, leading Germany’s attack against the Allied forces, often coming up against the likes of Montgomery and later even Churchill from the enemy line, Brian Lara found himself bereft of any seemingly stoic support to prop up the West Indian side, often playing the soldier, the field marshal on the pitch and the guardian angel of its cricketing fortunes . It won’t be incorrect to say that Lara was the lonely soldier fighting for a declining West Indies team, often peaking to the core amid torrid times of West Indies cricket decline getting whatever support he could from legendary bowlers Walsh and Ambrose, leaving him to do the bulwark of his side’s scoring. And the ever willing Lara, never backed out. While the outcome of many games would be in favour of the opposition, it wouldn’t be before a Brian Lara special.
Having forayed into what he labels as the most challenging construct of cricket, some of Lara’s greatest knocks came in test match cricket, a format his side consistently struggled to contest given the cruelty of 5 long days hitting them at the peak of their decline during late the late 90’s and through the 2000’. He first made headlines and dominated discussions for his epic 277 against the mighty Australians in Sydney, Australia. That great knock would only be the first outing of the Prince with his truly revered passion: the love for playing long innings. Undeterred versus the likes of Warne and McDermott, Lara was dismissed run out. The inkling and urge to continue with a well built inning and convert it into a domineeringly large knock would become one of the greatest strengths of Brian Lara, a testimony to his diligence, effort and ability to dig deep when the chips were down. And, in West Indies’ case, Lara would more often be contesting with embattled situations.
It wasn’t that Lara’s side were almost always outplayed, there were glories his home side would fetch despite the obvious dearth of talent then. The Windies would often uproot the opposition at the Caribbean and at times, trump even tougher sides at their own den. But, the great artist behind decoration of such fabled outcomes would often be Lara himself, with unflinching support from Shivnarine Chanderpaul, now an elder statesman of the game and then Lara’s able partner at the middle.
There are batsmen who seem desperately in search of meaningful glories in the game and spend careers chasing a piece of cricketing glory. But, the same glory would come often to rest at the hands of one the games most prodigious sons- Brian Lara. There were more times in his career that you would think of Brian Lara and a cricketing world record in the same breath. The scorer of 11953 runs from 131 tests and 10,405 runs in limited overs cricket, reserved his special talent to construct mighty scores against the most dominating nations, a quality that you could only expect from one of the best bats in the entire game.
Aussie legend and batting pro Mark Waugh recalls what he calls ,” a simply unbelievable inning, truly the best I’ve seen in test cricket”, during one of the most closely contested test series between Australia and West Indies when the Aussies were put up against the blazing sword of Brian Lara during 1998-99, at the West Indies. This time it was a bit personal for Lara who often misrepresented by the media for ‘punching above his weight’ and up against the sledging supremacy of Warne, McGrath and Gillespie had a huge score to settle. The then captain of West Indies played perhaps the greatest knock of his entire career, finding a mention in the coveted Wisden’s list for the greatest test innings played with a stupendous 153 not out at Bridgetown, Barbados, claiming victory from the jaws of defeat for his home side. This was not merely a victory but a sign of redemption for cricket’s embattled genius whose captaincy had the apparent taint of being archaic, unproductive and devoid of lasting benefits for the great legacy of West Indies cricket. Lara batted fire with fire, took on Mcgrath alone and showed Warne the way over the boundary ropes on many occasions. A highly composed innings at Barbados saw West Indies draw level with Australia with 1-1 with a victory margin as thin as 1 wicket and curtailed the Aussie supremacy. It conveyed the survival of Lara’s legend that had come under scathing media attacks and restored much needed stability of cricket’s survival back in the West Indies. Lara went on to the next test match, with his pride and valour restored as a batting demi god and struck a quick-fire 100 at Jamaica off mere 82 balls.
At times it even felt that Lara who strangely faired average against India and New Zealand, reserved the most brutal outings from his bat for England, South Africa, Pakistan and Australia. The gifted left-hander overtook fellow Caribbean legend Sir Sobers’ world record score of 365 by going ten better at 375 against England at Antigua in 1994. This was Lara knocking big on world record doors, a knock he would deliver time and again. His legendary 375 remained unbeaten as the highest individual score in a test inning until 2004 when Matt Hayden demolished an unconvincing Zimbabwe at Australia, scoring a mammoth 380. Lara, then 34, took notice of this and congratulated Hayden. But neither Matt Hayden nor England were aware of the gigantic Brian Lara storm that was just around the corner.
They say cricket truly establishes the worth and merit of a batsmen often making him lock horns with uncertainty, defeat and sheer hopelessness. This could well be the unwanted undertone amidst which Lara’s legend soared in international cricket. In 2004, ten years after Lara touched the skies with his breath-taking 375 at Antigua, he was back at the same ground at St. John’s and up against the same opposition. His opponents even stronger this time with the likes of Michael Vaughan, Steve Harmison, Naseer Hussain, Gareth Batty, Michael Hoggard and Andrew Flintoff featuring in English eleven. Much to Lara’s dislike, his side was already trailing England that eventually won the series and the crafty willower’s captaincy had scrapped the attention of blood- hungry media all baying for Lara’s head to be chopped, ever unwilling to see his might as the batsman and holding him singly responsible for the Caribbean doom. No one were expecting a Windies miracle, not least Lara himself but what transpired on April 13, 2004 was there for the world to see. Lara send England packing with the Windies’s first inning score of 751 for 5 and went on to draw the match. This was a humongous outing with the bat for the Windies boys who had previously bundled out for a humiliating 94 at the Barbados test. Lara, who prior to arriving at Antigua for the fourth test managed a personal best of 33, was now in possession of the same record he held a decade back: highest individual test score. This time, Lara compiled a splendid and unpredictable quadruple hundred. In the West Indies as in the rest of the cricketing world, the luminaries of the game were simply bowled over by headlines that read "Lara's unbeaten 400". This was by no means an ordinary knock nor can be said to be the greatest ever played. But what made Brian's effort stand out from the shadows of doubt and hopes of triumphs was the unforgivable state of his personal form and the general slump in Windies' fortunes when the record was reclaimed. Only a player of his calibre and determination could have dug an inexhaustible well of concentration during those two days of batting, wherein he faced over 750 deliveries and yet emerged unbeaten. Not only was the state of cricket resurrected in the West Indies through Lara's knock, his own legend that had taken a beating was now on a scintillating new height. The Prince was back to his best.
True to his biting criticism of West Indies, Ponting remarked that Lara’s knock was for personal glories, ever devoid of the acceptance of reality that West Indies who had suffered from an embarrassing loss in the previous test, short of the quality of bowlers who could take 20 wickets, Lara’s knock made real sense to draw level with England. It was only when Sir Sunil Gavaskar wrote in the popular Hindustan Times that Lara’s knock popularized the sentimental urgency to commit something special for Windies cricket in his article, “ Where were you when Lara broke the World record”, that it began to make some real sense of Brian’s masterstroke. No other batsman since then has managed to touch mount 400, on which Lara’s heavyweight name rests ever so gracefully. Navjyot Siddhu would later comment that try making a triple hundred at a first class game Mr. Pointing before accusing Lara.
Moving on from 2004, Lara continued to fight for Windies’ right to stay in the game where on account of their own collective failures they were fast being ruled out. On his final tour to South Africa, Lara struck another blazing world record by scoring as many as 28 runs from the left handed off spinner Petersen. Incidentally, he was punishing to Danish Kaneria during his final career tour to Pakistan where at Multan, Lara belted the offie for 26 in one over. This would go on to be a hugely successful tour for the veteran batsman, where he enthralled one and all with a stellar show of glowing batsmanship. He struck a memorable 226 at Multan raging batting assault at all premier Pakistani fast bowlers. In some ways it is remarkable to note that since 2000, Lara had 21 scores of 100 plus in test cricket, eventually overtaking Sir Sunil Gavaskar with 36 test centuries in totality.
For cricket’s truly enigmatic genius, it was rather sad to witness a steep decline in his sides fortunes. Following the retirements of Walsh and Ambrose at England before 2004, Lara was two batsmen rolled into one and always in search of match winning bowlers, a facet much wanted even in the present West Indies side that perhaps has Jerome Taylor as any confirmation to being a genuine quickie.
For world cricket’s betterment and for the jubilation of West Indies fans, Lara and his form have always been important, even ephemeral given the sublime output of Lara’s bat at many occasions. His legend never remained untested at unfriendly conditions. He overtook Alan Border’s tally of 11,100 runs at Australia and dished out memorable double hundred against Sri Lanka and South Africa on multiple occasions at their own dens. Wherever Lara went, fans were united, often witnessing the relentless triumph of his hungry and punishing blade against the best of bowling attacks, sparing none from Chaminda Vaas and Murali to Donald, Klusenser and Pollock.
In the collective lexicon of glamour of one day and test match cricket, we have often undervalued and at times unappreciated the exploits of cricketers in first class domestic cricket, holding superior performances at county cricket as below par from those at national levels. But, if you are to examine the versatility of someone as gifted as Brian Lara, you would notice he created something special even at this level. His unbeaten 501 for Warwickshire in 1994 against Durham at Edgbaston truly fetched the prince cricketing immortality.
Times have changed now. The cricket lover fetishes the shorter stints of the game, living all 22 yard dreams on the T 20 pitch. The genius shows at test matches are often a symbol of glories fetched diligently by the likes of Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Kumar Sangakkara and Jacques Kallis, who have all been stalwarts of the game. The likes of Bravo, Sammy, Russell and the Gayle-storm have all personified the hard hitting thunderous T 20 show, definitely enthralling fans who live for shorter public memory in cricket. But whenever someone will glaze past history books of the West Indies in a surge to revisit titanic single-handed battles fought with giants of the game, Brian Lara’s name would emanate a spirited and pulsating response. Hail, the Prince of Trinidad.
Apart from the records and the great peaks he scaled in a remarkable career, what is it that makes Lara enigmatic? It is the fact that he was every bit a great caricaturist of delightful stroke - play as he was a battler. The whirring blade, that flashing grin sitting atop that high back lift have symbolised an artistic flair we all dream to witness in our much loved sport. For his grace under pressure and the ability to bounce back at the face of overwhelming odds, Brian Lara shall always be regarded as a fearsome competitor and an artist as rare as any.