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Paul Coupar in Barbados
April 22, 2007
With a cacophonous sell-out crowd and the green hills of central Barbados behind him, Brian Lara batted for the last time in an international today. Or so he tells us. With Lara nothing is ever quite clear-cut - except his genius.
His records pushed back the frontiers of batsmanship. Each shot was a daredevil walk along the tightrope between disaster and triumph, a tightrope he less walked than danced along. He thrilled billions. His love for the game is deep. As he signed autographs tonight he cried.
And yet, and yet . More than any modern great except Muttiah Muralitharan, Lara divided public opinion. They thrilled to his batting but wondered about some of the rest.
A classic example came this afternoon. Michael Vaughan had just reached fifty, only his 16th fifty in 86 ODIs, when his uppish cover drive grazed Marlon Samuels's outstretched fingers. Lara stood still at point, hands on hips. The expression was either admirably relaxed or magisterially resigned to the failings of lesser beings, depending on perspective.
Those split feelings were reflected in a bumper crowd today. They roared him to the crease. Only a subcontinental one-dayer could touch it in terms of sheer noise. But despite his runs, some West Indians here today thought the side were better off without him.
No one thought they were better off without watching him though. Today they didn't get much chance. Run out for 18 after a "yes, no, maybe, sorry" shocker by Samuels, he walked off with the annoyed-but-resigned air of a dead cert for Olympic gold who found someone had tied his shoelaces tied together.
And so he left the stage. Unlike Courtney Walsh at The Oval in 2000, not all of his team-mates formed a guard of honour. Which may or may not be coincidence. But the press box, who only had to watch Lara rather than deal with his foibles, gave him the rare accolade of a standing ovation. They included Angus Fraser who was a bowler on the receiving end 13 years ago, during the epochal 375.
Still, huge scores never quite buried the skeptics. On one hand Lara talks eloquently, movingly even, about the need for West Indians to show pride in the team they represent. On the other while the team travelled together in a coach on their last tour of England, Lara travelled in a silver Mercedes lent by an admirer.
On one hand he is a tireless advocate of rigorous preparation. On the other, like Ian Botham, the ease with which his success came inadvertently pointed a younger generation to inspiration more than perspiration.
At the end today he endured a long and stifling press conference with great charm. He also brought along his daughter Sydney. Touching or contrived? As ever with Lara, there was more than one opinion.
But there was always the batting. This was his last day at the office, as the cliché has it. But no image is less appropriate. He has never been businesslike. Even the forward defensive he played to his first ball was extravagant: a huge shuffle right across the crease (has any top batsman been bowled behind his legs so often?) and a swish of the bat.
He was a gambler not a banker, and crowds loved him for it. Twenty-two thousand turned out for a dead game to hosanna him into retirement. That on an island with a population of 279,000. Perhaps half were tourists, most looking pinker and pinker. But it still adds up to around one in 20 Bajans at the ground. "Lara, Lara" they screamed, demanding a promotion up the order as the first wicket fell. Everyone wanted one last glimpse.
On one thing hardly anyone was divided: Lara was the best batsman to watch of his generation. He brought joy to millions, billions even. "Have I entertained you?" he asked the crowd at the end. The thunderous roar in reply said it all. Clive Lloyd said Lara was a batsman he would pay to watch. "Not that he has to pay", pointed out Lara in the press conference. But billions would, and did, and will probably never have chance again.