April 21, 2007

The last king of Trinidad

Nobody made the game look better and few ever played it better than Brian Lara

Brian Lara batted with sensual beauty and gluttonous appetite. Many will hope he does it one last time in Barbados © AFP

Brian Lara, maker of epics, will bat one last time on Saturday. As ever, man and batsman, leader and performer, will take stage together in familiar conflict. Appointed captain a third time specifically for the Caribbean World Cup, he had some encouraging success with the one-day side but ultimately leaves behind this botched campaign as his final mark. Humiliation still fresh in their minds, but still the momentousness of the exit of the most brilliant batsman of his time before their eyes, West Indians will be divided. To savour him one last time or blame him one last time?

Always it has been so with Lara. I stumbled across an article from many years ago by BC Pires in Jamaica. To the Jamaican taxi driver the issue of Lara was clear: "'im like a child, like my likka son at home: 'im want captaincy, 'im must get captaincy; 'im wan' to bat at number five, 'im must bat at number five; 'im don't want captaincy any more, 'im t'row it back; 'im don't wan' play, 'im don' play, 'im never care if the team need 'im. No, bredren, West Indies parform better without him."

I also came across a short note on the message boards of caribbeancricket.com minutes after the understated announcement of retirement. "My hero since I was a very young boy. I've followed his career since de afro days at Fatima. Missed classes to watch him bat. This is a sad day for me."

It is for me too, because Lara's batsmanship was the greatest pleasure I derived out of cricket in the last two decades along with the bowling of Wasim Akram and I could have watched the game if they alone played it in the field. Lara batted with sensual beauty and gluttonous appetite. To watch him move into position was to already understand the possibilities of this game. To study his figures was to marvel the scope of his conception. He made the most runs in an over, an innings, a career. Anything anyone did he did bigger. Can you imagine someone making five hundred runs at one shot?

Nobody twinkled his feet so and angled his blade so and keep hitting gaps like Lara, an intuition sharpened in childhood when he arranged pots as fielders to practise. In 2003 a man at deep midwicket was taken out and put beside another behind point. This comes from Adam Gilchrist in The Australian a couple of seasons ago. "Mistake," hissed Lara. Next ball Lara lofted to midwicket for six. Gilchrist taunted Lara to take on the two men behind point instead. Lara strung it between them for four. Next ball was straighter, Lara backed away and strung it through again. Best remain silent now, Gilchrist then decided. This was to demonstrate precision of his skill. But I particularly liked "mistake". 'You don't know what I can do?' was the strut. That is the Lara motif.

The ambitions of his mind as much as the liquidity of his movements have been of fascination. A colleague from junior cricket told me about the time Lara the boy would come knocking at the door early in the morning every week when they published the averages, brandish the paper in his face with a great satisfied smirk and be off on his way to practice. When he was performing the improbable task of continuously taking apart Muttiah Muralitharan in Sri Lanka

in 2001, his likely successor Ramnaresh Sarwan, unable to summon such mastery, watched in awe from the other end. 'Just watch how I do it,' Lara is said to have advised Sarwan, testament to both the man's ego and his genius.

Nobody could pack so much drama, meaning in every shot of cricket. Consequently nobody could so illuminate the point that this is a sport of such independent events, of an infinite number of worlds.

Five years ago after a fair chase I did a satisfying interview with him. He told me a little story behind the 153 not out against Australia, perhaps his defining work in a career full of defining works. You remember the scenario, pay dispute, 0-5 in South Africa, 51 all out in the first Test, and then the brilliant double hundred to level the series before the classic Test at Bridgetown. A school friend, Nicholas Gomez, had presented him a Michael Jordan book. In it Jordan had spoken about his visualisation techniques. "I remember calling Gomez at six o'clock in the morning, the last morning of the Test match, and we went about planning this innings against the best team in the world." This was Lara's focus upon arousal, and if it deserted him he always found it back, and in the waxing and waning there was something reassuringly cyclical as it was frustrating.

Seven years on from that Australia series came another contract dispute, and Lara among others was dropped for endorsing the wrong corporate. When he returned, 36 years old now, he walked out at 13 for 2 in the opening hour against South Africa, having not played a Test for seven months. He made 196; the next highest score was 35. Thirteen days later he emerged at 12 for 2, soon to become 12 for 3, again on the first morning, and made 176 from 224 balls out of 296. West Indies were drubbed in both Tests. To test the point that Lara inhibits the rest of the team, he was dropped for the following one-dayers against Pakistan. West Indies lost all matches. Back for the Tests, Lara now walked out at 25 for 2 - for a third time, in the opening hour of the match - and struck 130 from 120 balls , this the most sublime of the lot.

He bows out now in a one-day match but it was not his preferred stage. Though his magical wrists, his intuition for gaps, his talent at going aerial were all suited to one-day cricket, not so the scale. The canvas was too small. Lara was of odysseys. He liked to get in, bat one, two days, score two, three, four hundred runs. Before such calibre, the limitations of one-day cricket were too petty.

Even so he was for a time - early in his career, when he batted always in the top four, rather than five or six where he has spent much of his last stint as captain - about the finest limited-overs batsman in the world too. He took 41 matches to get his first hundred. Then he added another ten in the next 70. His average passed 47. Those were the days of the mid-Nineties when the world of cricket turned for Brian Lara. All he touched turned to runs. Then came the slump, and while he regained his genius in Test matches, it wasn't ever quite the same in one-day cricket. The same appetite he could not bring to the short form and many a potential masterpiece was sawn off. In the past eleven innings alone he has had scores of 44, 31, 37, 37, 21 and 33.

But every now and then the brilliance shone through. His last one-day century, the only one in three years, was 156 against Pakistan at Adelaide last season. The final 57 balls of that innings brought 106 runs. It was a stunning reminder of his destructive potential and reminiscent particularly of his Sharjah blitz against Sri Lanka a decade ago when he had gone from 100 to 169 in 29 deliveries.

Lara tees off against Harbhajan Singh in Trinidad last year © AFP

Having been unlucky in that way, it is from a one-day match that I have the best memories of watching Lara live. This was in Trinidad last year. The position was carefully determined so as to find the most unfettered view of that great big glittering backlift and wind-up. We settled somewhere between wide long-off and extra cover. Till he closed the issue with triumphant sixes off Harbhajan Singh, he played an innings of hard grit. So it was an hour or two of watching him size it up and really it was all I wanted to watch.

There comes a point in the Lara wind-up when all the game seems frozen. He is bent climatically at the knees, bat, as the cliché' has it, raised like a guillotine, eyes trained down the pitch and, surely, given his knack for reading of spin and swing, at the bowler's wrist. Insofar as the life of a cricket stroke goes, this is the fatal moment, the hairline between death, glory and a day at the office. It is perhaps not normal to think of cricket shots in those terms. Yet nobody could make the spectator more alive to these possibilities. Nobody could pack so much drama, meaning in every shot of cricket. Consequently nobody could so illuminate the point that this is a sport of such independent events, of an infinite number of worlds. Nobody, for better or for worse, could so strongly confirm that this here is the ultimate individual sport played by a team.

Nobody made the game look better and few ever played it better. So look hard on Saturday because we may not see the likes of this again and if we do we can think back to Lara and smile.

Rahul Bhattacharya is author of Pundits from Pakistan: On Tour with India, 2003-04