The best of modern cricket writing July 24, 2004

The simplest art

Ian McDonald
The July issue of Wisden Asia Cricket was a celebration of modern cricket writing, with 15 of the best writers in the game selected their favourite piece of cricket writing by a modern cricket writer

The July issue of Wisden Asia Cricket was a celebration of modern cricket writing, with 15 of the best writers in the game selecting their favourite piece of cricket writing by a modern cricket writer. BC Pires, the West Indian journalist, picked the piece below, by Ian McDonald. Scroll down to the end of the article, to read Pires on his choice.



Brian Lara makes batting look simple - the way it was "meant to be before original sin came into the world" © Cricinfo

One of the great writers on cricket, R.C. Robertson-Glasgow - probably only C.L.R. James and Neville Cardus are greater - wrote once about another extraordinary left-handed batsman:

"Frank Woolley was easy to watch, difficult to bowl to and impossible to write about. When you bowled to him there weren't enough fielders; when you wrote about him, there weren't enough words. In describing a great innings by Woolley, and few of them were not great in artistry, you had to be careful with your adjectives and stack them in little rows, like pats of butter or razor-blades. In the first over of his innings, perhaps, there had been an exquisite off-drive, followed by a perfect cut, then an effortless leg-glide. In the second over the same sort of thing happened; and your superlatives had already gone. The best thing to do was to presume that your readers knew how Frank Woolley batted and use no adjectives at all."

I am inclined to take his advice in writing about Brian Lara. Just one adjective I am tempted to use - simple. Lara makes batting look the simplest of arts. Except for a little while on the last morning, when he was nervous after a restless night, in that record score of 375 there was no strain. It looked easy, simple, inevitable. Yes, that is how batting was meant to be before original sin came into the world.

Nothing, of course, is inevitable - in life or cricket. But from early in Lara's innings of 375 something special seemed likely. The commentators spoke of him being chastened by criticism that he had been responsible in the previous Test in Barbados. There he had made a quick-fire 64 and was out pulling at a ball not short enough for the purpose. To universal dismay the West Indies had been defeated at hallowed Kensington. Now West Indies had lost a quick wicket and after Lara came in another wicket went down one run later - 12 for 2 and trouble looming. That first morning's play saw a Lara in whom determination to prepare for a long, long stay could not have been made clearer. He got rid of all the swash and buckle in his batting. The back-lift was six inches shorter than normal. In defensive strokes his head was bent that much lower over the blade of his bat. In aggression he remembered the old saying by which Headley and Bradman swore that you are not likely to get out if you hit the ball along the ground. His bat did not flash, it shone with certainty. And the point he was determined to make turned into a world record.

This innings was not like Lara's 277 against Australia. It was not as carefree and scintillating. It had its origin in carefulness and responsibility and never lost that basic connection. As if to challenge himself in an art which is too easy for him, Lara quite often creates complications and attempts the unusual and even the flamboyant. Now in over 12 hours batting he cut nearly all of that out. He kept his brilliance sufficiently in check to ensure that his score was always moving along very satisfactorily but with no risk of losing his wicket.

The concentration exercised was a monumental achievement. I made sure I watched every single ball of that immortal innings and I was constantly surprised how quickly Lara's score seemed to be progressing without any extravagant effort whatsoever on his part. He was, of course, bringing to bear a gift which is only bestowed on one or two batsmen in a generation - the ability to place shots precisely where fielders are not. If you look carefully you can see how with the most subtle of grip-changes Lara can adjust the angle from which ball leaves bat and how consummately therefore he finds the open spaces. The long time he batted so chancelessly, the gaps he found so unerringly, if the outfield in Antigua had been half as fast as at Bourda or Kensington Lara's score would have been 450.



Lara's feats go beyond sport - they are woven into the history of the West Indies © Getty Images

Well, he scored enough for glory. We older ones will have to get used to that 375. Sobers's 365 stood for so long - it is part of his legend and a piece of our history. The new number will become the most important statistic in the game - though, with many more Test teams and so many more Test matches year in and year out, it is unlikely to endure as long as the astonishing 36 years which the Sobers world record lasted. Lara himself will certainly contemplate breaking the record again. Who knows, these are very early days, but young Chanderpaul who honourably partnered Lara as he gained the prize may be a contender when to his extraordinary concentration and excellent leg-side play he adds power and placing on the off-side.

However, Lara's 375 is not just a statistic. It will be woven into our history as a West Indian nation as was the 365 Sobers so imperiously fashioned when he was a stripling 21. It will become mythical. Stories will accumulate about how Lara's score was made, how the three-day drama passed. Thousands will swear to grandchildren still unborn how they were there to see the great deed done until the Antigua Recreation Ground slowly takes on the dimensions of a giant stadium to hold all who will convincingly tell how their hearts stopped and raced a dozen times that final morning, how at last they saw Lara swivel on his toes to pull that record-breaking ball square and flourish his bat in triumph as the world title passed to him, how the police rushed to guard him like a national treasure from the encroaching, adoring crowd, how Sobers came with dignity to embrace him and how Lara knelt and kissed the pitch beneath his feet - I was there, I was privileged, we will say, as indeed we will have been as the years go by and Lara's deed transforms reality into the greater truth of myth and legend which all can share.

It was perfectly fitting that Gary Sobers, the old record holder, was there to walk on the field and give Lara a hug. He was full of grace and graciousness as he lost his record. He must have felt some small pang at least of regret and mortality - how time passes, how the wind blows away the deepest footprints in the sand. But he was all grace and consideration in the other's hour. I thought of the wonderful story told about Sobers by Trevor Bailey:

"It is easy to give one's wicket away but it takes an artist to do this as well as Gary did for me in a Benefit game in the 1960s. He decided he had provided sufficient entertainment and had scored enough runs, so he got out. Nothing unusual about that. It was the way he did it which typified both the man and his craft. He waited until I sent down a ball of good length which pitched on his leg stump and hit the middle as he played a full forward defensive stroke, deliberately and fractionally down the wrong line. He made it look a very good delivery - it wasn't a bad one! But he played his shot so well that the wicket-keeper and first slip - though both county professionals - came up to congratulate me. I knew instinctively what Gary had done. But no spectator realised it was an act of charity; only Gary and myself."

There will never be a greater cricketer than Sobers. As a batsman on the offside he cleaved the field as now Lara cleaves it and on the onside he pulled as lethally as now Lara pulls. He had the ability, which Lara has, of converting a defensive stance within a split-second into perfectly timed and placed aggression. Even looking at the slow replays I cannot quite analyse how this happens - something to do with extraordinary reflexes and wrists that turn from parry to cuff in half an instant. Now, after he had congratulated Lara, Sobers was interviewed and said the best thing about Lara's batting anyone said all week: "If you watch him bat you never see him use his pads. He hits the ball with the bat and that is how the game should be played." Strong, forthright, clear, convincing words about what the best batting means. It is how Sobers used to bat, it is how Lara bats now - with only one thing perhaps to add: how there are days when such men as these play with so fine a fettle and pitch that neither would need bats, but a stump, a walking stick, a wand would do and still leave the pads unmarked all day.

In the play Amadeus there is a scene where the highly talented and very hard-working court composer, Salieri, is shown to have produced a piece of music after considerable labour. His young assistant, Mozart, comes into the room and Salieri plays the piece of music proudly for him. Mozart smiles and praises it but then wonders whether it might be improved by just a few modifications. Mozart goes to the piano, plays the piece, tries this and that, then says "What about this?" And he plays the piece changed forever by his genius. Salieri's hard-won composition has been transformed into one of the world's great melodies. Most Test batsmen, even the best, are Salieris. And then a Sobers, a Lara, comes along and says "What about this."

This article was first published in Guyana's Stabroek News in April 1994.

Ian McDonald was educated at Queen's Royal College, Port-of-Spain, and Cambridge University. He captained the West Indies in Davis Cup tennis and played at Wimbledon. He was awarded the Guyana Prize for Literature in 1992 and an Honorary Doctorate of Letters in 1997 by the University of the West Indies. McDonald has published short stories, four poetry collections, and a play, The Tramping Man. His award-winning novel The Humming Bird Tree was first published in I969; in 1992 it was made into a BBC film. He has written a weekly column for Stabroek News since 1986. He is currently CEO of the Sugar Association of the Caribbean.

BC Pires on Ian McDonald

In the tiny West Indian territories you often find a critical social function being provided in unusual ways or by unorthodox agents. For example, in Trinidad and Tobago, panyards - the open areas where steelpans are stored - became community entertainment centres because it was easier to move the people to the pans than vice versa. Similarly, the best West Indian journalism has served the function performed by fiction elsewhere: to describe anew the already known; to reveal, wondrously, the nearly-seen; to uncover, startlingly, the completely hidden; and always, always, to be readable.

Ian McDonald's journalism is amongst the best the region has produced. It is deeply informed and influenced by his gift for fiction, so a McDonald column is always a short story. The purity and brevity of his analysis makes it difficult for the best editor to cut a single word without radically altering the meaning, so his columns are always also poems.

I read every piece I see of McDonald's from beginning to end; often twice. I come away from every essay by him touching West Indian cricket with a clearer understanding of the whole and my own responsibility to the same. The piece he wrote on Brian Lara's 375 combines all his writing strengths with his great, obvious love for cricket and the West Indies.

BC Pires is a cricket writer based in London and Trinidad.

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