Lara and the art of leaving
You could never accuse of Brian Lara of lacking in timing. And if his retirement announcement was made without customary flourish, it didn't lack drama. It was the most delectable of late cuts: perfectly conceived and deftly executed, it left those in its presence breathless.
There was no gasp, because it took time to register. He dropped it in casually, just after he had finished answering his last question and when notebooks were being put away. He leaned forward, almost as if he was preparing to leave, and whispered these words into the microphone: "I gave extensive consideration to this. I want everybody to know that on Saturday I'll be playing my last international match."
Journalists turned around and looked enquiringly at each other. Did I hear it right? Did he say merely international or was there a one-day before it. Some rushed to the dais to confirm it with Imran Khan, the West Indies media manager, who nodded his head. Some shoved miniature bats and notebooks to be autographed. But Lara had made it clear that there would be no further questions, and none were asked.
The very first question had been about his future and Lara had cut the questioner off. "This is about today's match," he had said firmly, and had repeated the refrain whenever the subject had veered towards it. However, he had fielded other broader questions, about West Indies cricket, about Ramnaresh Sarwan - the leading contender for the captaincy - and one about how he would like to be remembered. Given what transpired, the question now seems prescient though, to be honest, it was asked in the context of his one-day career.
Lara's answer was typical of him. He didn't bother mouthing platitudes about service to the country and the game. "I would like to be remembered as someone who came out there and tried to entertain." That was the truth about Lara. It was his essence. Over a 17-year career, lots of his relationships - with the board, with selectors, with the media and even his own team-mates - were stretched and tested. But one bond remained unshakable, that between a conjurer and his spellbound audience. You fell for him instantly, and were hooked for life.
With hindsight, it is obvious now that the press conference had so many touches of a farewell. "I am also proud," Lara said. "I have been knocked down so many times, as a player and as a person, and I have had the strength, I suppose that has come from my parents, to be able to pick myself each and every single time and go out there in the face of adversity and try my best and perform. I didn't read it up in a book. It's deep down and it's part of my family trait."
Time and again during the press conference, Lara was provoked to bring his dispute with the administrators in the open. He refused the bait. But what he left unsaid, said a lot. "Whoever is the new captain must receive the support he deserves." When asked if he received the support he needed, he merely said it was no time to cry over spilt milk. Success in the international arena, he said, depended on much more than the 11 players on the field but, when pressed further, he insisted that "this was not the forum to discuss this".
There will be another press conference in a couple of days, and Lara will surely be there. This time though, his inquisitors will be much better prepared.
Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo and Cricinfo Magazine