The spectacular Mr Lara
You cannot discuss West Indies batting in the modern era without bringing up the names of Sir Vivian Richards and Brian Lara. I grew up watching Richards murder bowling attacks, chewing his ever-present gum with a swagger and arrogance all his own.
West Indian cricket has been a journey of thrills, fun, amazing peaks and disappointing troughs. For a team shackled with the burden of a heroic past, impeded in its development by wrangling within its cricket board, Brian Charles Lara has stood out and stood tall as one of the greatest batsmen the world has seen.
To an observer who is not West Indian, the Caribbean attitude is a strange one. Where most of us show immense emotion when confronted with challenges, many West Indian players hardly seem to change expression - whether they have won or lost, scored a duck or a hundred. This relaxed, laidback attitude, which has unfairly drawn huge criticism for being unsuitable to the pursuit of relentless success as styled by the Australians, has, however, succeeded in producing some of the most versatile and complete cricketers to have ever played the game. And that is exactly what Brian is: versatile and complete.
Like all great batsmen he has scored runs in every corner of the cricketing world against all the best attacks. What sets Brian apart from the other greats is the manner and attitude in which he wields the willow. There is panache; there is flamboyance, unpredictability, periods of consistent brilliance, and inexplicable runs of bad form. Never one to have been praised as a true team man, he single-handedly shouldered the burden of carrying West Indies' batting through a decade.
I have been unfortunate enough as a Sri Lanka cricketer to have witnessed him at his best at close quarters. The West Indian tour to Sri Lanka in November 2001 was The Brian Lara Show. In just six innings he scored 688 runs at 114.66, with three hundreds and a fifty. He did so at a time when Muttiah Muralitharan and Chaminda Vaas were at their lethal best on Sri Lankan pitches that had bite, bounce, turn and reverse swing. Yet West Indies still lost 0-3.
Brian's technique and style are not orthodox. Though he starts with a beautifully balanced stance, he progresses into a flamboyant and outrageously high back-lift that would be a coaching book no-no. His initial movement seems to be a spilt step-jump that flings his body into the position required to play his shots. Although unorthodox, these two movements, coupled with a fantastic eye and even better hands, allow him to generate incredible bat speed and power at the moment of impact. His sometimes extravagant follow-through is the result of this bat speed. Many are the times when, though his feet are nowhere near the required position they should be in to play a shot, the correctness of his balance and head position frees his hands and allows them to catch up with the ball at the exact right moment.
He is also the most destructive player of spin I have seen. To my mind he is the only batsman to have effectively tamed the threat of Murali and dominated him and Shane Warne. Brian has all the cliché attributes of a great player of spin: a good eye, quick feet, the ability to read from the hand, and an attacking attitude, combined with the most solid of forward defences. But to my mind what truly sets him apart and makes him such a fine player of spin, better than the rest, is that he is not content to react to the bowler. He keeps challenging himself in the middle of an innings to exploit the one area of the field the bowler wants him to exploit. I have seen Murali turn the ball square across him, with no midwicket, enticing him to play against the turn, and I have seen Brian keep driving, flicking and sweeping into that one vacant spot. Doing it once or twice is comprehensible, but to watch him do it for an entire session, it made you raise your eyebrows in amazement and wonder.
His nemesis in international cricket for a long time was Glenn McGrath, whose success against Brian was based on his ability to exploit the angle of bowling around the wicket. When Glenn came around the wicket to Brian it was almost a given that he would edge to slip. This was a matter of hot debate in our dressing room: many are the times we have tried to replicate the strategy, many are the times I have watched other teams attempt to do so, both with no great continued success.
So the question remains: was it really the one technical chink in Brian's armour or was it McGrath's special ability? Murali, wanting an answer, in his own direct and engagingly blunt fashion asked Brian himself when we were having dinner together at Mahaweli Reach in Kandy once. "Brian," Murali said, "why are you getting out all the time to McGrath?" Brian's answer was: "Murali, I have to get out somehow, and if I get out to McGrath, so what, it does not bother me." He simply did not believe there was a problem.
This was a personality trait that helped make Brian so successful. The situation of a match did not seem to bother him - the pressure, the expectations, his form; it just didn¹t seem to prey on his mind. Brian played as if for the moment. Each ball a fresh start, each stroke unhindered by the immediate past. He always believed that his ability would triumph. It is a degree of self-awareness and self-confidence that is extremely hard to achieve.
|The situation of a match did not seem to bother him - the pressure, the expectations, his form; it just didn¹t seem to prey on his mind. Brian played as if for the moment. Each ball a fresh start, each stroke unhindered by the immediate past|
Maybe it was this, too, that undermined his effectiveness as a leader and allowed the perception to develop that he was not always a total team man. I cannot be sure this was the case, not having shared a dressing room with him. I question whether being so much better than the rest made it hard for him to relate properly to the lesser players in the team. Although he was certainly an astute and intelligent captain, he struggled to get full team cooperation and respect. It is hard to drag a team along that does not fully believe in you.
One question mark I have in my mind about Brian is: why the bad periods? He was brilliant, but he could also be inconsistent. On song, unstoppable; but there were times when he struggled badly. Technically he didn't change all that much through his career. It could just be that he couldn't synchronise his back-lift and exaggerated trigger movement. He needed rhythm as a batsman.
If you assess his achievements, he undisputedly ranks at the very top - 501 in first-class cricket for Warwickshire, 375 not out and then 400 not out in Test cricket; the highest run-scorer in world cricket for years until Tendulkar pipped him recently. That he achieved most of these feats when the opposition was swarming all over his team is remarkable.
However, perhaps the true value of Brian was his entertainment power. Whatever he did on the field he did with style and grace. He was not just a cricketer, he was a performer. There have been many great players, but few with the same ability to thrill a crowd. With Brian batting, the record books were constantly threatened. Every game had the potential to produce something amazing. When he was batting well, there was no greater sight in world cricket.