Pakistan v West Indies, 2nd Test, Multan November 22, 2006

Lara's at the height of his game

Fazeer Mohammed

'Lara's overall demeanour seems to be that of a man increasingly at peace with himself and ever more comfortable with the role as mentor' © AFP

"When a man sees his end he wants to know that there has been some purpose to his life." That line, delivered by the late actor Richard Harris in his role as Emperor Marcus Aurelius in the movie Gladiator, seems almost to define the Brian Lara we are seeing now in Pakistan.

It isn't just the runs, although any innings of substance from him is a sight to behold. His demolition of the potentially lethal Danish Kaneria, firstly in Lahore and now in Multan, are just a continuation of what he did to the legspinner in the Caribbean last year, although it is no less enjoyable to see such a champion daring to touch the heights of perfection in his quest for dominance over a respected opponent.

And it is not merely a parochial sort of enjoyment, restricted to West Indians, fiercely loyal Trinis and the die-hard brethren up in the gloriously lush surroundings of Cantaro. The fan who held up a placard nearing the end of the third day's play, advising that he had come from Saudi Arabia to see Lara at his best is the personification of that pure appreciation of a maestro at the height of his game.

No doubt he and most of the spectators at the Multan Cricket Stadium would like to see the home team do well, but in the same way that Caribbean fans down the years have surged through the gates to see the visiting champions in full flow, while at the same time willing their team to victory, Lara's batsmanship is an experience that transcends the petty boundaries of nationalism and it would have left them with an empty feeling had he completed his final tour of Pakistan without leaving a lasting impression.

His last two innings have put those fears to rest, but it is the combination of serenity and paternalism that have offered a different complexion to his leadership - as captain and premier batsman - in this series. As always, it is a perilous exercise to read too much into what is picked up off the television screen or gleaned from interviews, but Lara's overall demeanour seems to be that of a man increasingly at peace with himself and ever more comfortable with the role as mentor and father figure in the last years of a long and outstanding career.

From turning his back on Dwayne Bravo after his careless dismissal on the opening day of the series to constantly cajoling, advising and even openly coaching him during the course of a record-breaking fifth-wicket partnership yesterday, Lara is looking way beyond his own personal ambitions, even though he still has new frontiers to conquer.

There may be a collective responsibility in making the decision, but it is almost beyond question that the dropping of Ramnaresh Sarwan for this second Test was primarily a move by Lara to send a clear and equivocal message to his heir apparent that he cannot continue to play fast and loose with such abundant talent and expect to escape unscathed.

Maybe it's a case of the pot calling the kettle black, given that when Lara was 26 years old, as Sarwan is now, he was in the throes of arguably his most turbulent year in the game, a period that included walking out on the squad during the tour of England, choosing at the very last minute not to tour Australia and then issuing a public front-page apology in a local newspaper for his conduct at the end of the 1996 World Cup campaign on the Indian subcontinent.

But only a fool allows others to commit the same mistakes that he has, and while it can be argued that he is only selfishly trying to polish up his image for the sake of posterity, it is more productive to welcome Lara's approach in his third term as captain as better late than never, and as a chance to belatedly instill the lessons that he would have benefited from in earlier days. One of those lessons is that cricket has given him more opportunities in life than he could have ever dreamed of, and that it is up to the likes of Sarwan and others to make the most of chances they would never have gotten otherwise.

Far from ruining his life (he has since conceded that the comment made in 1995 was ill-advised and came in the midst of his own inability to cope with the fame and fortune of his world record feats), cricket has been his saviour, and really his only fear now is to be remembered as an outrageously gifted man who disrespected the game and used it for his own ends.

That is probably why Lara's batting milestones so far in this series have been acknowledged, not with exuberance and clenched fists, but with an almost polite reluctance, as if to say his achievement is just a piece of a much bigger picture. There have been, so far, no fiery verbal confrontations, just a quiet serenity that breaks into the occasional smile, whether touching gloves in mid-pitch or smashing another six over long on.

Age does indeed bring wisdom, and it is up to Lara's younger teammates to absorb all that they can from this seasoned gladiator, even as he continues to delight us all by the manner in which he wields his scything blade