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April 21, 2007
The complete, complex details behind Brian Lara's decision to bring an end to his celebrated career before the time schedule he himself had set may never be suitably explained. Yet they are not difficult to surmise. As recently as the start of the World Cup, Lara had enthusiastically spoken of batting on to 40, even if only in Test cricket. A series in England, against opponents who were the recipients of his incredible record scores of 375 and 400 not out and much other misery besides, beckoned. Instead, he will now be following it from beyond the boundary.
The reasons can at least be partially gleaned from the circumstances of the exit of another phenomenal West Indian batsman and captain of the preceding generation. They are comparable, indeed almost identical. Sixteen years ago, aged 39, Viv Richards, whose influence on West Indies and world cricket was as impactful as Lara's, played the last of his 121 Test matches, against England at the Oval in London, a choice he had made known some months earlier.
He left the field after his final innings to a standing ovation. Situated, as the Oval is, in the heart of London's Caribbean community, the farewell was long and emotional, if not what it is bound to be for Lara today on hallowed West Indian turf that has been the scene of some of his most memorable deeds. But one final challenge attracted Richards. It was the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand six months later.
In a reversal of Lara's stated priorities, Richards was through with Test cricket but he repeatedly advertised his desire for one last shot at the game's premier limited-overs competition. Much to his displeasure, his wish was denied, almost certainly on the same grounds that Lara's has been. Richie Richardson had been appointed captain just after the tour of England and Jackie Hendriks, the then chairman of selectors, wrote to Richards explaining the reasons for omitting him. Perhaps Gordon Greenidge, Hendriks' present equivalent, or Ken Gordon, the president of the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB), have done the same for Lara.
Hendriks wrote: "We feel that the new captain should feel totally uninhibited and unhindered in bringing his personality and personal stamp on his team and, with the former captain on the team, this may be most difficult for him and the other players as loyalties could well be divided," he stated. Richards was unimpressed, as were the fans in Australia and West Indies. The former captain said he had heard "mutterings and whispers that some people in positions of responsibility in the team and on the West Indies board did not want me anyway".
"Sadly, there are members of the West Indies board I used to respect a lot but I do not now," he added. As the West Indies were eliminated from the World Cup in the first round, placards proclaiming "Bring back Viv!" and "Where is the Master Blaster?" appeared at grounds in Australia.
Back in the Caribbean, the issue was one of the many that contributed to Richardson being booed and heckled during the subsequent, inaugural home series against South Africa. It was the start of a turbulent time for Richardson whose tenure lasted four years. It included a period when he was advised to rest because of "acute fatique syndrome" and came to an abrupt end during the 1996 World Cup in India and Pakistan, inspite of the West Indies reaching the semi-final. He was 34 and never played for the West Indies again.
Four years ago, the failed World Cup campaign in South Africa finished off another captain, Carl Hooper. Like Richardson, he also called it quits, with Lara recalled to take his place for his second term in charge. Now Lara, as captain, is seen to have also paid for his team's lamentable performance in the World Cup, the first in the Caribbean, a historic event that was confidently expected to lift the gloom that has hung over West Indies cricket for so long.
As with Richards, there is somewhat more to it than that.
Graeme Smith was the last of South Africa's old guard. The roots of the new one need to grow deeper