Last of the Gang

Mere statistics shouldn’t be the sole judge of a sports star’s career. Factors other than how many goals a footballer has scored, how many tournaments a golfer or tennis player has won or how many conversions a rugby player succeeds with should not be the only arbiter of where a performer is placed in the pecking order, or whether he or she is believed to be one of the all-time greats. More sport is now played than at any point in history; more matches, more tournaments, more championships. A professional golfer can easily win four tournaments on the European Tour, but all four could be those devoid of the best players, backwater tournaments without wishing to sound derogatory or disrespectful. A professional footballer may score twenty goals in a season, but they won’t have as much value if they are collected against the league’s lesser lights or in matches that have been sewn up long before our striker finds the back of the net. Timing, circumstance, quality and opponent should all be taken into account before a final assessment is made. Not everything that counts and all that.

And so it should be with the career of Brian Charles Lara. Predictably, three dates will polarise Lara’s career: 18th April 1994, 6th June 1994 and 12th April 2004. Inevitably, the three record breaking performances are Lara’s stand out achievements. In reality though, Lara’s most defining performances, and by extension those upon which his career should be judged, were not those at Antigua or Edgbaston. Records are an easy footnote to a player’s career but Lara’s possession of batting’s most lustrous records could be eclipsed as runs are accumulated an ever increasing rate. On the contrary, Lara’s best performances have, by on large, been laced with quality and timing rather than outright quantity.

Trinidad’s favorite son made his test debut against Pakistan in December 1990, compiling a competent forty-four against an attack that included Imran Khan, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Abdul Qadir. It would be another two years, but only four tests, however, before Lara’s distinctive high back-lift and shuffle across the crease became fully apparent to the world of cricket. With the West Indies already one-nil down in the five match series against Australia, Lara flayed the likes of Craig McDermott, Merv Hughes and Shane Warne all around the Sydney Cricket Ground in a superlative display of flawless batting that announced his arrival. His innings of 277, albeit in a drawn match, proved pivotal in the series, shifting the momentum in favor of the visitors as they won the last two tests to take the series.

Indeed, his modus operandi made the Lara rollercoaster ride all the more beguiling and absorbing. Ten months prior to his magnum opus at the Sydney Cricket Ground the Trinidadian produced an astonishing shot during the 1992 Cricket World Cup match in Melbourne that offered the cricketing world an insight into the sheer brilliance and audacity of his batting prowess. Facing Pakistani pace bowler Aaqib Javed, Lara lavishly pulled a back of the length delivery over midwicket whilst almost suspended in mid-air as he had hopped off of both feet. The shot travelled through the ether akin to a tracer bullet and clattered into the fence at the extremity of the vast Melbourne Cricket Ground outfield, an astonishing shot with a bat that would be considered anorexic in comparison to the modern day’s obese articles.

Lara’s brilliance had been firmly established by the mid-nineties, underpinned by his record breaking achievements for the West Indies and Warwickshire, but it was arguably a further four years after the latter achievement that he transcended to the cricketing firmament, paradoxically at a time when the fortunes of his cricketing country were heading in the other direction. A truly dominant double hundred in the second test at Sabina Park against an Australian attack comprising Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie, Shane Warne and Stuart MacGill, affirmed his position as one of the two most potent batsmen on the planet, Sachin Tendulkar the only other player who could rightfully claim to be on the same level.

Again, it proved to be the fore-runner to the main event. Set 308 to win by Steve Waugh in the subsequent test, Lara strode to the wicket with his team in the perilous position of seventy-eight for three, facing imminent match, and, in all likelihood, series defeat. The ensuing tour de force at the Kensington Oval has gone down in Barbadian folklore though, as Lara steered the middle and lower order towards the victory target, dominating the strike in such a manner that the next highest score amongst the West Indian batting line-up was just thirty-eight. Left with walking wicket Courtney Walsh at the other end of the pitch, Lara guided his side past the 308 run total, finishing unbeaten on 153, again defying the previously mentioned bowling attack in a glorious riposte to those who claimed the West Indies could no longer compete with the big boys.

The victory proved to be the last stand for West Indies test cricket however, but the genesis of Lara’s love affair with breathtaking performances in the face of his team-mates’ failings. A foreboding tour of Sri Lanka at the end of 2001 threatened embarrassment for the once great Caribbean kings, but their three-nil whitewash was softened by Lara’s genius against the great Murali. Scores of 178, 40, 74, 45, 221 and 130, forty-five percent of his side’s total runs in the three tests, left cricket writers speechless at the great left-hander’s sheer bloody-mindedness and refusal to yield.

Lara was just one piece in the cog though, and the other parts were simply not made of the same high quality materials. 533 runs came in four more tests against the Australians, whilst another 531 came against the South Africans later on in the year, including another double hundred at the New Wanderers.

Sadly, much of Lara’s career was part of a team that was at first fading, and then faded. The last truly great batsman, Richie Richardson, retired after the 1996 World Cup, whilst Courtney Walsh and Curtley Ambrose called time on their bounteous careers just after the turn of the millennium. Lara was charged with leading the islanders on their 2004 tour to England, but by then he was the only world class player left in the squad, the only player that England would readily pick for their side. The hosts romped to a gluttonous four-nil whitewash, Lara could only manage two scores over fifty in his eight innings. The end was nigh.

There was time for a couple of last hurrahs however. Even though Australia had overtaken the West Indies at the top of the test tree, and dominated the once great Caribbean team, from the late nineties onward, Lara had remained a thorn in the side of the all conquering Antipodeans. And he would dominate them one last time. Already two-nil down, and facing yet another whitewash, Lara thrashed McGrath, Lee, Warne and MacGill to all parts of the Adelaide Oval in another scintillating double hundred. Dwayne Bravo was the team’s next highest scorer with just 34. Once again though, it was in a losing effort. Twelve months later, the coup de grace was applied. On a slow pitch in Multan, Lara compiled a breathtaking, nigh on run-a-ball 216 against Pakistan, with his first 150 coming off of just 145 deliveries. It was the last piece of brilliance from the last in a long line of West Indian batting greats. He would only play in one more test match before announcing his retirement from all cricket prior to the West Indies’ last game of the 2007 World Cup.

 

Lara’s brilliance extended beyond mere statistics though. Watching him bat was a veritable rollercoaster ride. Whilst contemporary Sachin Tendulkar played with the precision of a premier surgeon, Lara batted with astonishing brutality and violence, beginning with his pronounced, almost perpendicular back-lift and the exaggerated shuffle across the crease. Once in line the bat descended with savage ferocity, thumping into the ball with astonishing speed and force accompanied by a theatrical scything action that exuded brutal panache along with exciting vigour. In some respects, Lara attacked the ball in a manner akin to Seve Ballesteros and a golf equivalent in his prime; watching proved simply enthralling and addictive as the savage beauty proffered a mesmerising quality. Despite an appearance of wild abandon, Lara still remained in control, playing in an attacking manner whilst keeping the ball scudding across the sward rather than through the ether.

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