Brian Lara November 26, 2005

The Lara odyssey

Lara may have just broken Border's record, but to measure his greatness one must turn to many other greats

Brian Lara acknowledges the cheers after breaking Allan Border's record. © Getty Images

The latest Brian Lara record was achieved by overtaking Allan Border's tally of 11,174 Test runs, but it is not to Border one must turn to measure the epic stature of the feat. Passing Border's record was all but inevitable from the time Lara appeared in cricket's saga with the classic 277 at Sydney. This was going to be an epic journey of the proportions of an odyssey. As his footprints mark a long and complex trail that will soon turn homeward bound for what might be his last stand in the 2007 World Cup, he has left deep imprints on the game, revealing the weight of the burdens he's carried on his quest.

From childhood, he had imagined himself a cricketer of the world, a steadfast cause. On April 5, 2000 shortly after he'd resigned as captain of West Indies, he told David Ellis of Starcom Network that his goal was "to be the best or one of the best batsmen of the nineties, and maybe one of the best batsmen of the 21st century."

Despite the debates provoked by claims to that stature, he has etched his name alongside the greats of cricket history, and whatever the disputes in ranking, he will remain one of the elite. In five overs on the second day's play of the third Test at Adelaide, Lara became the game's leading run-scorer. At 213, a single off Glenn McGrath, his old bogeyman, broke the record, and it was fitting that it should be against one of the finest bowlers of his time. McGrath was responsible for his wicket at 226, leaving the new mark at 11,187.

We have seen spirit and grace when Lara walks and finesse and mastery when he stands. Lara's innings do not begin at high noon as Neville Cardus said of Frank Worrell's; they harbour the tentativeness of a night person greeting dawn's piercing rays. Yet, as that first cup of coffee can make everything right, so when he gets started it is high noon till sundown.

A guard of honour for Brian Lara after he made 400 against England at Antigua © Getty Images

Figures present a framework, but not all the material required for holistic appraisal. His numbers alone could tell the tale of batting that knows no end; of Waugh will and Ntini stamina occasionally camouflaged by Inzy-like girth that suggested easy life rather than athlete's rigour. Let's consider them for a bit.

Restrict them to those who've scored more 30 Test centuries: Sachin Tendulkar (34), Sunil Gavaskar (34), Steve Waugh (32) and Lara (31). Just for perspective, because you really need it here, add Don Bradman (29), the man whose record has the most significance now for Lara. All these hundreds do not reveal accurately what they built innings after innings. (I'd always wondered why in cricket a batsman is allocated one century per innings even if he has scored two or three.)

In this small group, Lara has shown the most consistent capacity for the big hundred, second to only Bradman. In Tendulkar's 34, four reached 200 and 14 more than 150, adding up to 5196 runs. In Gavaskar's 34, four reached 200, and 12 more than 150, adding up to 4802 runs. In Waugh's 32, he made 200 once, and 14 times crossed 150, adding up to 4342 runs. In Lara's 31, eight crossed 200, and 18 more than 150, adding up to 5431 runs. For some last century perspective, Don Bradman crossed 200 on 12 occasions, with 18 scores, nearly two thirds, over 150. His 29 centuries tallied 5393 runs. Bradman possessed the courage, stamina, concentration and will to construct mammoth innings: characteristics of the epic hero with absolute focus.

Born on May 2, 1969 in the village of Cantaro in Santa Cruz, the young Lara tirelessly practised strokes. His family reported that at three, he was batting at marbles. In his book, Beating the Field, he reveals the single-mindedness of his pursuit, a common trait with superlative performers. "When the others grew tired and went home and there was no one else to play with I used to play my own Test matches on the porch of our house, using a broom handle or a stick as the bat and a marble as the ball. I would arrange the pot plants to represent fielders and try to find the gaps as I played my shots."

This kind of focus typifies the relationship formed by super-achievers with their disciplines. The intensity of their encounters comes from an obsessive desire to master performance, to understand its internal structures, and a feeling that to engage it is the most beloved activity. Given his notions of mastery, he staked his claim dominantly on April 18, 1994 at the Antigua Recreation Ground against England. Lara's innings of 375 broke the world record that had been established 36 years before by Garry Sobers, the 365 against Pakistan in Kingston in 1958.

Brian Lara celebrates the famous victory against Australia in Barbados. He scored an unbeaten 153 © Getty Images

To make the highest individual Test score, Lara had faced 538 balls and hit 45 boundaries in an innings lasting 766 minutes. He had given warning in Sydney of the potential with the 277, which Sobers wrote could easily have been the record breaker, except that his luck ran out. "When I wrote my autobiography Twenty Years at the Top in 1988, I said I believed my 365 would never be beaten," Sobers said in the foreword to Beating the Field. "I based that on the theory that one-day cricket was producing a type of batsman who is less capable of playing a long innings. There were few batsmen around, I said, with the necessary concentration to stay at the crease for ten hours or more and aim for a score of 300 plus."

Lara had shown the discipline and the concentration to build big scores. Shortly after Antigua's record-breaking performance, he took off for England to pick up his new £40,000 contract with Warwickshire. In his debut on April 29, 11 days after the Antiguan spectacle, Lara scored 147 against Glamorgan. By May 23, he had collected five first-class centuries in a row, and another world record for consecutive first-class centuries was in sight. He missed it when he was out for 26 at Lord's, but in the second innings he recovered enough to make 140 off 147 balls. The next month, he broke the first-class individual record with 501 runs at Edgbaston. He had become the first player to score seven centuries in eight first-class innings. Ten years later, he would regain his Test record with 400 not out in Antigua again.

After 1995, he teetered on the edge of greatness. Stardom brought controversy, and conflicts shadowed his every move, all under the glare of media spotlights. He did not perform well during the Australian tour of the Caribbean in 1995, and the visitors ended the West Indies' 20-year victory spell over them with a 2-1 win. Following this deflating series West Indies went on tour of England amid widespread reports of strained relations between Lara and the captain Richie Richardson.

Superstar status, acrimony with administrators, and a drift away from the centre of his cricket made him declare cricket was "ruining my life." Long dry spells punctuated by flashes of brilliance led him to resign the captaincy he'd held for only two years as he struggled for form.

The first signs of a genius: Brian Lara's maiden century - 277 at Sydney © Getty Images

Sri Lanka could not have seemed a likely place for resurrection. He went on that tour with concern over the hamstring injury that had plagued him since the England tour of 2000. That same injury had flared up at crucial moments in Tests in between, and seemed to frustrate him by its doggedness despite medical interventions. Yet, from the first innings of the first Test at Galle when he scored 178, Lara squared his shoulders, as George Headley must have done when he too carried the weight of West Indies, and fashioned a series of spectacular innings. His performances were particularly poignant as they emphasized the solitude of his task amidst his flailing, falling teammates.

Perhaps it was the challenge still resonating in the Caribbean air from Bob Simpson's insistence little more than a week before that Lara could not be called great because he was inconsistent. Simpson had dismissed Lara's world records as being unworthy in the face of weak opponents and the sledging and the furore it invoked provided the right fire. Lara had told young cricketers training at the Shell Cricket Academy that sledging lifts his game. "You can't come out here and talk to me like that," he'd warned. The Australian's Andrew Ramsey recently reported that Ricky Ponting taunted Lara for batting slow early in his innings during the Adelaide Test in 2001.

"From that moment on he just smashed us," Ponting said. "After the game he came into our dressing rooms and said to me 'thanks very much', to which I replied 'what do you mean?' And he told me that's the way he likes to go about it, to face a certain amount of balls before he starts playing his shots."

Ramsey referred to Lara as "sublimely gifted but emotionally erratic," a label easily affixed unless underlying layers are examined. CLR. James, writing in Beyond a Boundary of WG Grace, had noted: "Like all truly great men, he bestrides two ages." The great West Indian teams of the past had always had a balanced blend of experience and precocious youngsters. From the end of the eighties and into the nineties, a large proportion of the experience was abruptly removed when players such as Richards, Haynes, Greenidge and Marshall left. Gone was the blend, gone were the synergies that had developed between bowling pairs, batting partners and fielders. The bridge between the old and new had collapsed into a sea of amnesia, cutting the youngsters adrift from their past, and effectively turning them into orphans.

Lara had been thrown up at this convulsive time in the social order. While his front foot was firmly pointed in the direction of the new, global outlook, his back foot still carried an imprint of the traditional West Indian world. He has straddled both worlds, like WG Grace he bestrides two ages, and within this complex role he has often been misunderstood and vilified. As he holds this new record, one can ask: what next for Lara? Alexander the Great had wept at the prospect of no new worlds to conquer.

After his first world record Ian McDonald wrote: "To have a dream come true is one of the saddest things that can happen to anyone." It is what Lara must have discovered ten years ago as he struggled to find another dream. At this point in his life, it might be the right time to dream of Bradman.

Vaneisa Baksh is a freelance journalist based in Trinidad