July 14, 2006

The Lara curve

Lara's learning curve has been steep in several areas since his first captaincy stint, but remains curiously flat in others

Brian Lara: feeling the heat © AFP

During the post-mortem after West Indies rolled over on that infamous tour of South Africa in 1998, scandalous accusations abounded of a team unwilling to take the field, of disunity and selfishness. In defence of Brian Lara, selector Joey Carew described him as a learning captain. Lara said the same.

Admitting that they were outclassed and there was disunity in the team, Lara blamed this on the fact that players come from different countries (as they have always done). Except for one occasion during the series, when he mentioned that he too had not been performing with the bat as he had hoped to, he took no responsibility for the loss.

That series remained mired in the contract disputes that threatened it from the start. A strike, a confrontation, allegations and retractions; only a Nelson Mandela intervention dissipated tensions, but could not revive interest in the series. The learning captain was deep in the trenches, at war with the West Indies Cricket Board and leading his team in revolt before leading it on the field. Such was the bitter baptism.

Yet, Lara would have known that the captain has a key role to play in the success or failure of the team. He had studied its dimensions since he was at school, reading Mike Brearley's classic, "The Art of Captaincy", captaining Trinidad & Tobago, and campaigning for the position of West Indies captain, some say, with such reprehensible zeal that it undermined the incumbents.

This was the Brian Lara who had been a global darling after his 1994 world records: 375 and 501. This same Lara became reviled as the affected brat given to tantrums, tardiness, disrespect and bad cellphone etiquette. Superstar status was calling the shots. Unimpressed, the cricket world shot back.

It is hard to imagine what his world was like. On the cricketing side, here was a phenomenal player at his peak, leading a team where the opponents were fed and watered on the very best: nutrition, gear, facilities, therapy, training, and money. On those scales, the West Indies cricketers were lightweights. In Cricket in the Sun, Learie Constantine said: "In two years, we lost only one match, and that was because our opponents turned out in full cricket whites. Anyone who has played schoolboy cricket will know the importance of the psychological factor; we in our coloured shorts and black boots lost our morale from the start." Was West Indies team morale lowered by its inferior packages?

Forever on the brink: Lara's captaincy has been a rough ride, some - but not all - of it of his own making © The Nation

Performances remained immorally low and Lara resigned from the captaincy in 2000, after little success, despite the majesty of his performances against Australia in 1999. He returned and was once again relieved of it; again the team was riven by contract disputes with the WICB. Under Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Lara wore the captain's role more conspicuously than he had done when it was his. Soon, Chanderpaul would hand it over, and the third term began following the New Zealand losses.

Facing first Zimbabwe then India, the team managed to secure back-to-back ODI series wins. But the testing period was the Tests against India. Tired old maladies resurfaced in the form of contract disputes, and bad karma surrounded the team even as they managed to draw the first three matches.

Lara became increasingly vocal about his frustrations. He complained about the selectors' choices, his exclusion from decisions, about bad pitches. After the deciding match Lara, to use a colloquialism, "leggo no-hand" and accused the groundsman of preparing the pitch for India. At the wicket, he had offered a mocking tribute to the groundsman, an ill-tempered gesture that lowered his stature even further than the losses he had claimed were affecting his reputation as a captain.

It's hard to imagine what was going through his mind. Lara, love him or hate him, has shown great sportsmanship throughout his turbulent career. He walks uninvited, he has taken bad umpiring decisions without a murmur, and he has generally upheld the spirit of the game. In this manner, he has kept the game aloft. What went awry here? Was he so angry that he forgot himself? Was it similar to what happened to Zinedine Zidane in the World Cup final? Those two moments were turning points in both matches. They were big pricks in the balloon of team confidence, they were losing gestures.

Is it that in the realm of superstardom that Lara and Zidane occupy, the concept of self towers so mightily over the notion of team that at critical pressure points the instinctive reaction is purely personal? A person's instinct is a direct line to the core; the interaction between other thoughts and conditionings produces a measured response. Lara and Zidane rose to global stature on account of their brilliance: the balance of instinct with talent, training and thought. Was the pressure too much?

In Lara's case, his temperament would require an extraordinarily tight leash for him to keep cool when the administration that is supposed to support him is pointing daggers at his back. He does not carry the natural composure that Dravid does, and is still learning to muster it.

His learning curve has been steep in several areas since his first captaincy stint, but remains curiously flat in others. He has brought much that is commendable to the team, brought much to cricket, but just as he is able to lift everything to sublime heights he can bring it all crashing down. It is a hellishly complex role to occupy, an unimaginable weight to shoulder. But Lara is a complex individual and when he is around any damn thing is possible.

Vaneisa Baksh is a freelance journalist based in Trinidad.