As the West Indies’ World Cup campaign faded without a whimper, so did the Caribbean sun set on the glorious cricketing life of Brian Lara. The career of Brian Lara scaled the dizzy heights almost as many times as Bradman. It also had to be said that events surrounding the life of Brian often exceeded the comedy, theatre and sublimely ridiculous nature of a scene from Monty Python.
The West Indies have now had a chance to ponder and experience life without Lara. The diminutive but chivalrous “Chiv”, stood head and shoulders above his team mates but it did not stop them from being thrashed in the Test series against England. However, having just secured a consolation series win in the One Day cricket, it might be a nice time to reminisce about the great deeds of the great man.
I recall the start of Lara’s career. Well, almost the start. Lara’s first Test was in December 1990 as a 21 year old. He had to wait almost another 18 months for his second Test and then a further six months until his 3rd Test. Remember that back in those days, the Windies were numero uno and it wasn’t easy to get a regular place in the team. The first Test in Australia in 1992-92 marked the real start of his long and illustrious career. Lara made 58 in his first Test against Australia and I recall he was very upset when he was stumped by Ian Healy. There was some doubt as to whether Healy had control of the ball and Lara’s behaviour was petulant indeed. We had to wait just two more matches (Lara’s fifth Test) for the first of his epic innings. While 1993 was still very new, he made 277 at the SCG and was so untroubled that it seemed inevitable that he would break Sobers’ long standing record of 365. However, it wasn’t to be as Lara ran himself out. It seemed a terrible waste of “a once in a life time” opportunity. No so for Lara. As we learned with Lara, where genius is concerned, opportunities are created often enough to allow one to squander a few a long the way.
Just over a year later, Lara scored 375 against England at St John’s. Set the pigeons free. If there was ever any doubt, Lara was guaranteed to be a family name.
Less than two months after the 375, Lara scored 501 not out playing for Warwickshire versus Durham. That was a new First Class cricket record and Lara’s star could shine no brighter. At the tender age 24, Brian Lara had a achieved all that could be achieved with a cricket bat. Why he did not do a deal with Levis Jeans, I do not know [Ed: Apparently, at the time, Lara a sponsorship deal with Joe Bloggs Jeans]. His fame truly verged on being Bradmanesque and perhaps he could have done with some of Bradman’s maturity and stature.
Lara seemed to have trouble with being a God in his homeland and struggled with being the new super star in a fading team of fading stars. Over the next dozen or so years, Lara’s ability to continually plumb the depths and scale the heights would amaze. West Indian cricket went into free fall from 1995 and all looked to Lara for leadership. It wasn’t the first time that history would show that genius with a cricket bat does not automatically make a leader of men. West Indian cricket and indeed Lara is a complicated subject. I think you can buy books on it. I once commented that “He might be soft-headed, egocentric, illusive and enigmatic but the man is a batting genius.” (http://www.dongles.org/cgi-bin/article_display.pl?article=20050414.txt). You could also add that Lara was just about always a good sport on the field, he walked when he was caught behind, he usually showed good manners to the media and had the ability to be quite charming.
Here are some of the highlights of Lara’s career after the 501. (These highlights focus on Lara’s Test career. We all know that Lara chose the recent One Day Cricket World Cup to close his career. Lara was a fine one cricketer but it surprised me to find that in scoring over 7,500 runs, he made just 3 centuries in One Day cricket, all against Australia.)
Brian Lara scored more than two hundred runs in a single Test innings on nine occasions – a statistic bettered by Bradman only. He managed to achieve this milestone at fairly regular intervals throughout his career, and in fact, the highest concentration was towards the end of his career: Between 2003 and 2005, Lara scored five double centuries. The longest drought – five years – came between the 375 and what I think was Lara’s finest individual effort – the 1999 series against Steve Waugh’s team. The first Test of the series was Waugh’s first as Australian captain. Australia humiliated the Windies, winning by 312 runs and dismissing the home side for just 51 in the second innings. In one of the great turn arounds, Lara reeled off a trilogy of master pieces, drawing the series almost single handedly. In the second Test, Lara scored 213 and with just a little help from his friends, laid a platform for a 10 wicket victory. The third Test was one of the all time epics. Lara made 153 not out in the final innings as the West Indies stole a one wicket victory. In the final Test, Lara scored 100 exactly from just 84 balls but it was not enough to stop Australia from winning the match, squaring the series and retaining the Frank Worrell Trophy.
In October 2003, Lara lost the world record to Matthew Hayden, who scored 380 against Zimbabwe. I don’t think many could have been expecting Lara to reclaim the record – but he did – within six months. In December 2003, Lara warmed up by hitting a record 28 runs from a single over against South Africa. But of course, that was sprinting – Lara had long ago made marathon his specialty. On 10 April 2004, Lara scored 400 runs in a single stay at the crease, once again making England chase leather, once again at St John’s.
Shortly after, started the ridiculous “Cable and Wireless” affair – the personal sponsorship deal that almost ended Lara’s career (through no real fault of Lara). Lara missed the entire summer of 2004-05 as the farce dragged on. At the eleventh hour, Lara returned for the second Test against South Africa, after an absence from all first class cricket of over six months. He belted 196 in the first innings and then to prove it was no fluke, he smashed 176 in the next Test. I don’t know how the guy did it. I don’t he knew either. Remember that by this stage that Lara was almost 36 years old – he was hardly a young man making a name for himself. And he didn’t stop there – he continued on in the next month with 130 and 153 against the Pakistanis in the first and second Tests.
Lara’s career was rarely flush with consistency. He did have purple patches where he would score several centuries and average well over 100 for a series or two. However, like no other, he seemed to have the knack of conjuring a miracle innings where runs seemed non existent. And unlike many of the great batsman, Lara didn’t seem capable of grafting an innings and scoring “ugly” runs when the going was tough. When Lara made a big score, it was always worth watching. Lara’s relationship with Australia typified this situation. Overall, Australia dominated the West Indies during Lara’s cricket life time. Lara went through some lean trots during his Australian tours and yet he averaged 51.00 against them. He had a very difficult time in the disastrous tour of 1999-2000 (the West Indies were trounced 5-0). He passed 40 on just one occasion, and scored ducks in the first two Tests. However, he did manage a truly stunning 182 at the Adelaide Oval. Next visit, in November 2005 (yes, the West Indies had sunk so low that they had to wait longer than the traditional four years), Lara passed 50 on just one occasion. Many, including a vocal Kerry O’Keefe were declaring that the champ was past it. In answer to this, Lara made 226 in Adelaide – it didn’t win the match but it restored Lara’s pride. It also propelled Lara past 11,000 Test runs – the first man ever to achieve the feat.
Lara’s surpassing of 11,000 had seemed to be faltering and it was a relief to see him do it in style, in Australia. Lara had gone from 10,000 to 10,800 in just a hand full of tests in 2005 and it seemed he would hurtle past 11,000 early in his tour of Australia and onwards to who knows – maybe even 12,000 Test runs. Following the 226, Lara’s next 10 innings yielded just one half century and 10 single digit scores. But Lara had one final flurry left in him – in his last six matches, he scored three centuries. That included a century in a session against Pakistan (100 from 77 balls) and 216 in his second last match. He finished with 11,953 runs at an average of 52.89. What a career!