The life of Brian
"He's not the Messiah, he's a very naughty boy," shrieks Terry Jones in Monty Python's Life of Brian. In Trinidad Brian Lara is the Messiah and nothing anyone says will change that. To many others elsewhere in the Caribbean, he is indeed a very naughty boy.
West Indies can't live with Lara, they can't live without him. Was last year's record-breaking innings in Antigua the worst thing that could have happened to the game in the region, simply papering over the cracks? Or did it restore pride to the islands and Lara's deserved status as the world's No. 1 batsman?
And what are we supposed to make of the recent South Africa series? West Indies were bizarrely at their best in Guyana without Lara and the other Cable (& Wireless) guys. When the great man returned, normal service was resumed. He made loads of runs, and his team lost.
Ridley Jacobs called him selfish the other day, not an original refrain but rare coming from such a recently retired player rather than one of the 1980s grandees. Lara's ability to score runs when he needs them is remarkable. If the team needs them too then that is a happy coincidence, like in the 1998-99 series against Australia. But the 400 not out against England was of no consequence either to the team or the series, only to Lara who had made 97 runs in six innings before that.
But plenty of other batsmen have been called selfish, including Steve Waugh. Batting, particularly at this level, is a selfish business. It's you against the other bloke and a batsman rarely has the luxury of thinking about something other than not getting out and where his next run is coming from.
What is relevant, though, is whether West Indies would be better off without Lara. The South Africans probably underestimated West Indies in Guyana but even so the way that under-strength side performed begs some very serious questions. They looked like a proper Test team, full of energy and enthusiasm.
Will Kendall, the former Hampshire batsman, wrote in The Wisden Cricketer recently that when Shane Warne first arrived at the county in 2000, the players were too intimidated to reap any benefit from his presence. In time that has changed, and Warne now galvanises Hampshire in a way that Lara has never managed (or perhaps attempted) to galvanise West Indies.
It is possible that the West Indian players, at least the younger ones, are intimidated by his presence. It is rare for a genius like Lara to be self-aware enough to realise how lesser players might feel in his company. Stories abound of England debutants in the 1980s and '90s simply being too scared - or being made to feel that way - to be themselves around their more senior team-mates. So if that can happen in an England dressing-room that wasn't overflowing with legends, imagine what it must be like to share a locker-room with Lara, or even to bat with him. Might you not speak until spoken to? Might you be a tad self-conscious about the first cover-drive you unleashed?
It is easy to lambast the West Indies players for lack of discipline, as the critics do. But discipline stems from desire, and desire stems from confidence. A player who is not confident and feels constantly under pressure will give off an air of ill-discipline or carelessness.
It is heresy to wish the departure of Brian Lara. He is the batsman I would spend my last dollar to watch. Not Tendulkar or Ponting or anyone else. But West Indies may only move on when Lara is gone.
He has lost 53 of his 115 Tests, and is only one defeat short of joining Alec Stewart as Test cricket's greatest loser. That is not a record that Lara either wants or deserves.
John Stern is the editor of The Wisden Cricketer