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Roving Reporter by Anand Vasu at The Oval
September 25, 2004
Brian Lara, equally sledged and celebrated for the role he has played in West Indian cricket, brought the horns of Brixton to life with a stirring performance against England in the final of the Champions Trophy at The Oval. India-Pakistan and Australia-England might well be the big drawcards at the moment, but those who forget the history and ethos of West Indies-England matches do so at their own peril.
There are few figures as compelling as Lara in world cricket. When he gets going with the bat, there aren't many who can match him for sheer electrifying entertainment. Freddie Flintoff hits it further, VVS Laxman flicks it with more charm, Sachin Tendulkar blunts it with greater control. But few can keep you on the edge of your seat like the Prince of Trinidad.
And very few people have had to carry a team for so long, single-handedly, as Lara has had to. West Indian cricket has been in such a freefall over the last few years that their odd victory barely stays in the mind for the flicker of an eye. In that sense, this Champions Trophy means more to them than anyone else. Sure, Australia were desperate to succeed because this is one piece of silverware that is missing from the trophy cabinet in the board offices in Jolimont Street in Melbourne. And England were keen to cap a fruitful season with a headline-grabbing win before football engulfs everything in its wake.
But, as Lara put it, victory in this tournament was a chance to put a smile on the faces of West Indians back home. The first people you met when you walked through the Jack Hobbs Gates at The Oval were those working for charity, collecting money for the victims of the terrible Hurricane Ivan tragedy in Grenada. The West Indian team has already pledged money to the cause, but that's not their speciality. They're a cricket team - there are others whose job it is to raise funds when it is needed.
What Lara and his team can do is give the people of their islands something no-one else can. Pride and passion are commodities which have been in short supply in West Indian cricket teams of recent years. And they have not won a major tournament since 1979, when they were crowned world champions at Lord's. Some observers of West Indian cricket believe that part of the problem is that this team is Lara-centric.
And today, you could see in the first session why it is so with the media. England began well enough, batting calmly in wobbly conditions, but the ball did a bit and the bowlers - even if they weren't Michael Holding and Malcolm Marshall - did enough to kiss the edges of bats. It was then that Flintoff had a chance to rise to the occasion and plunder the bowling attack. The first chance for him to do so came when Wavell Hinds dragged a long-hop down mid-pitch. Flintoff played a pull shot with the sort of power that would sever a bull's head in one go, and as the ball screamed towards midwicket, Lara dived low and scooped a fine catch.
Then came the second bit of inspiration. Geraint Jones smacked one from Hinds to midwicket, and Lara timed his leap perfectly, couching yet another full-blooded shot, and took the return that popped up. In two moments Lara had shown his pedigree - spot-on field placement and perfect anticipation, to remove two key batsmen and wrest the initiative.
He may not have the foresight and vision needed to lift West Indian cricket out of the trouble it is in, but Brian Charles Lara certainly has the magic to put a smile on a face, with or without a bat in hand. And, at the moment, that is all a Caribbean supporter can ask for.
Anand Vasu is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo.
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