Brian Lara told his life story to Rahul Bhattacharya, in an exclusive interview that appeared in the June 2002 issue of Wisden Asia Cricket magazine.
"You hear life is not a dress rehearsal, you hear you got to live your life." When Brian Lara says this, it is because that is how he has lived. He has been a prince of our times, but he hasn't sat by his window and watched the world pass. Brian Lara has attacked life, sometimes let it slip away.
Age, experience calms the most capricious of souls. Once, Lara was following his instincts all the way to the top. Soon he was stumbling through a confusing maze of superstardom. Now, at 33, he has found what he calls a serenity. "Serenity in the fact that I'm alive, that I'm healthy, that I'm doing things to the best of my ability, that I have my family support."
Life for Brian Lara over the last few years has meant battling injuries, rekindling the flame to a career that reached a breathtaking apogee against Australia three years ago, and continuing to cope with a media obsessed with his personal life. Above all, it has meant slowing down, prioritising, appreciating all that has gone by, understanding all that lies ahead. It has meant having to deal with himself at a mental, emotional and physical level.
An interview with Brian Lara is not easy to get. Journalists are not a necessary evil, he had once quipped - they are an unnecessary evil. When Lara does eventually consent to a meeting, he is immensely articulate; and he is honest.
Brian Lara has the ability to seamlessly fit images together. On April 27, Lara's management company organised a big party at his mansion in Port-of-Spain that went on till the early hours of the morning. The next morning, Lara was on the flight to Barbados, attired like a cropped-haired Lenny Kravitz in a sleeveless white vest (which revealed a leopard tattoo on the right bicep), frayed jeans, and violet sunglasses. Within a few hours, at a function to honour Sir Garry Sobers, Lara was looking every inch the ambassador in a crisp, maroon West Indies blazer, chivalrously dripping the water off chairs so that lady journalists could sit on them. Later that night, he was at a fete that he and Courtney Browne, a former team-mate and close friend, had arranged to raise funds for AIDS patients.
He is an individual of so many dimensions. Yet, over the years, the media's favourite image for Lara has been that of cricket's Ziggy Stardust: "He took it all too far, but boy could he play guitar."
Nothing, understandably, was the same for Lara since the summer of 1994. Yes, he had two of the biggest batting records in cricket, a doubly astonishing achievement when you consider they came within two months of one another. But it had all arrived, perhaps, before its time.
In Trinidad he became more than a mere hero. Within a year of the records he had a promenade named after him; was bestowed with the nation's highest honour, the Trinity Cross; was gifted a beautiful plot of land overlooking the Queen's Park Savannah where he built a spectacular house; was provided with 375,000 free miles by the national airline; and much, much more. In England, Brian Lara became the biggest news. His movements, his vacations, became subjects for TV and newspapers in a manner that is rare for non-British celebrities. All in all, the scrutiny was unimaginable.
"I was not privy to the fact that I was going to be a world-record holder," Lara says about those days, after a net session at the Kensington Cricket Club in Kingston. "I didn't know people are going to want a piece of you for every minute of the day and everybody is going to look at every single thing you do."
Some people are more ready than others. "You look at someone like Tiger Woods and you know he was prepared for what he was going to go through. He had a psychologist even before he turned professional. It took me some time. I made some terrible mistakes - but it's mistakes that I learnt from. This was my first chance, this is how I did it."
Today, he can look back and describe himself then as "a recluse, someone who was scared to talk to people because you didn't know what they were going to put on paper." For a man so fond of meeting people, going out - Port of Spain is the undisputed party capital of the Caribbean - this wasn't easy. Lara needed perspective.
"Three of four years ago I realized that it's sport I'm playing. You know the sport out there is great but sometimes it can be very fickle. And I can't put a great meaning to it to the point that I'm depressed or despondent because of it."
"I got a life to live - and it comes back to the fact that the most important people or the most important thing is your family. Those are the ones you depend on, especially in your dark days. I got a lot calmer with myself, I sort of realized that you can't be as hard on yourself as I was."
You can tell now that Lara is a father, and a gifted one. A little cricket fan approaches him as this interview is being taken. The boy gazes at his hero for a few seconds, peers into his kitbag, and then requests a t-shirt. "You know, you shouldn't ask for things so quickly," Lara says. "How about we talk for a while, you get to know me a little first?"
Family had been a huge part of Lara's early life. He was the second youngest among seven brothers and four sisters, and he shared a very special relationship with both his parents. Two women who played a vital role in Lara's life are his mother, Pearl, and his little daughter, Sydney, now five years old.
Mother Pearl, as she was sometimes fondly referred to in newspapers, was what Lara calls a "stabiliser" in his life. "Not one who was overly concerned at how my cricket is going, but one who's more worried about her son's safety, his psyche, how he is as an individual." She died in January this year. It was a big loss, but watching her suffer from cancer was getting close to unbearable. "I know she has gone to a better place. At some point of time I hope I will be able to see her again."
Sydney - named in honour of his first Test century, a divine 277 at the SCG nine years ago - is terribly precious to him. Though Sydney lives with her mother, Trinidadian model Leseal Rovedas - to whom Lara is still very close - Lara spends as much time as possible with his daughter, sometimes referring to her as "my new captain."
"Sydney's had a tremendous effect on me knowing that, you know - there I am out in the world, breathing the support of everyone, and getting it. Having being the recipient of family support in the past, I'm really looking forward to give that to someone."
Eventually, Lara is even looking to get married. "After cricket I'd love to build a family, I'd love to get close to someone and have kids, see them evolve into something special. I can wait a few more years; something where, when I get into it, it becomes a priority."
Fellows with the ability to score 375 and 501 in a single innings don't have ordinary minds. Above everything else, there is a desire and a power of concentration far beyond the reach of most. In what renowned sports psychologist, Dr. Rudi Webster, who has worked extensively with Lara and is now the Director of the West Indies cricket academy, describes as Phase I of Lara's career, everything worked according to script.
Then, after 1994, the controversies began to spring up - and steadily accumulate. Fallings-out with team managements, last-minute withdrawals from tours, constant media speculation about the tension between Lara and captain Richie Richardson (and then his successor, Courtney Walsh) and so on. Above all, the runs didn't quite flow as they once had.
Captaincy elevated the pressure till it reached a pitch. In early 1999, Lara returned as captain from South Africa, from a 0-5 drubbing. Before the tour was a pay dispute, after it there was just general despondency. Lara was put on probation as captain for the first two Tests against Australia, and Webster worked closely with the team, and Lara in particular.
Webster describes what Lara was going through then as "a process of self-sabotage". Champions can sometimes go through such phases; every conceivable pressure piles up on them and bottles up the ability. It is medically proven that the stress affects vision and makes the reflexes more sluggish.
West Indies lost the first Test of the series, in Lara's hometown, Port-of-Spain, by 312 runs, after having been bowled out for a humiliating 51 in the second innings. Basically, West Indies cricket was crumbling around Lara - which means, also, that he was at the centre.
Around then Lara was exposed to a technique called Visualisation. Think of Visualisation as a mental rehearsal; like writing the plot - and the end - to a story that is still unfolding. At about the same time, Lara remembers, an old friend from school, Nicholas Gomez, presented him with a book on Michael Jordan. "He had an entire page on how he went about visualizing what's going to happen in a game," Lara recalls.
In the series against Australia, an inspired 213 from Lara's blade had won the second Test at Jamaica to square the series. In the last innings at Barbados, the venue of the third Test, West Indies were chasing 308 for victory against McGrath, Gillespie, Warne and MacGill. Of course, it was going to be desperately hard. Lara played one of the great Test innings.
Lara had seen it all before it happened. "I remember calling Gomez at six o'clock in the morning, the last morning of the Test match, and we went about planning this innings against the best team in the world. It was amazing to see how it just came to fruition. You know, a partnership with someone - it happened to be Jimmy Adams - and the innings ultimately evolving into a matchwinning one."
That was Lara's vision, and that was his hunger. Yes, it was magnificent batsmanship, but what Lara demonstrated, really, was that he hadn't forgotten how to think like a winner. "It wasn't a matter of chance," says Webster. "True champions are at their best in the toughest circumstances." This was Phase II.
Yet, the West Indies' rut resumed. After an early exit from the World Cup in England, and a humiliation in New Zealand where the team lost both Tests and all five one-dayers, Lara resigned from captaincy, citing what he famously described as "moderate success and devastating failure". He needed, more than ever, to regroup mentally.
Phase III, according to Webster, started before the tour of Sri Lanka this year. Prior to the series, Lara was, Webster says, in about the same mental frame as before the Australian one - he was ready. Lara's biggest objective was to win the series, but there were two other, important, personal goals that he had set for himself: to push his steadily declining average back above 50, and to regain the number one slot in the ratings.
In the space of three weeks, he had achieved both. It was that obsessive hunger.
But even his 688 runs in six innings couldn't prevent West Indies losing all three Tests. It hurt Lara. "That was really and truly my main goal. The runs and the averages, what it really has to do is to see us come back to the top, to see us win. It didn't happen in Sri Lanka."
Even on a personal level, the challenge had just begun because the hardest part, always, is staying at the top. "Before Sri Lanka a lot of people were saying negative stuff but I was able to set things straight. From there, I don't want to find myself back in the situation where people are guessing if I can play cricket or not."
"I want to be a consistent individual. I want to be someone my team can depend on all the time."
But no matter how focused you stay, it's hard to be up all the time when the body doesn't allow it. The recent series against India passed with Lara averaging less than all the specialist batsmen in his team. It could be tempting to go back to the old Lara theme of inconsistency: prince one month, pauper the next. Yet, the physical challenges, which Lara himself never likes to cite as an excuse, were compelling.
He reached Sri Lanka having recovered from the hamstring injury that had bothered him intermittently ever since the England series in 2000, and kept him out of the Zimbabwean tour earlier in the year. Now, just when he had hit fifth gear, a collision in the field resulted in a dislocated left elbow. It meant that all his match practice after a five-month layoff would have to come in the Test arena.
Not only that, his elbow condition had aggravated what Lara himself refers to - candidly - as a "faulty technique" to his batting. "One of my major problems is that my back-lift is so high that sometimes the bat comes from outside the line of the ball; I tend to chop across the line." It is precisely what Sobers, Lara's close friend and advisor, had told him before the Sri Lanka series.
Lara himself knows his every mistake, because he is gifted with what West Indies team manager Ricky Skerritt calls, "an incredibly high intelligence for cricket."
Lara remembers clearly his dismissals in the Trinidad Test against India, which West Indies lost. "I got out caught behind twice - at slip and by the wicketkeeper - because of the lack of strength in my hands because of the injury. I tried to use the pace of the ball behind the wicket instead of playing up in front. As soon as I get back to full strength, I'll definitely be aiming to play with the full face of the bat."
Further, the injury also kept him from his favourite hobby of playing golf, though he has other interests to keep him going - "a bit of reading, the computer... on the net, surfing."
The Lara approach to batting itself is evolving. That faulty technique meant that Lara, over the years, was prone to scintillating risks. "Now I'm trying to cut down on those risks because it's not all the time it works. Sometimes you realize that you give your wicket away unnecessarily. I'm now trying to build a very sound defence and a sound technique."
"You know that if you spend 40-50 minutes and you're still on five or ten, that you're going to build it into a major innings. Before, you think that you need to set the tone for the innings immediately, and in doing so, you risk your shots. I'm thinking less that way now."
Sobers has noticed the change. "He's learnt to concentrate a lot more, he's learnt to understand the value of his innings. He's always thinking about the mistakes that he makes, and is out to correct them, and he works very hard at his game. He knows his responsibilities and he's quite willing to accept them."
As a child Brian Lara would surreptitiously listen to the transistor underneath the bed-sheet till late into the night, hoping that his father wouldn't catch him. The commentary invariably related the tale of a West Indian victory in a cricket match.
"You got to understand," he explains, "that I was accustomed to success. Listening to success."
As his own cricket blossomed, Lara was picked into a West Indian team that was number one in the world, and one that remained there for the first five years of his career.
If he says that he is unfulfilled, it is because West Indies have constantly plumbed new depths. "Looking at the Test rankings and seeing New Zealand and stuff ahead of us - I don't know how they do these ratings - I don't think we should be in that position really. I'd like to be a part of a team that is going to leave the shores of the West Indies, go abroad, and beat top teams. Beat Australia. Beat South Africa."
Lara is almost sure that West Indies can get there. "I have no bones in saying that we've got the most talented cricketers in the world. I mean I don't see too many 21-year-olds batting like Sarwan and Chris Gayle and Marlon Samuels and these guys. What happens in the next couple of years - the apprenticeship period - is that the other cricketers in the other countries seem to come on much better. Maybe we need to put a mechanism into place whereby we ensure that these youngsters get the right training - if it be the mental side or the physical - whatever it takes."
Though captaincy is something Lara will not reconsider in the near future, he already sees himself as a leader in this team. "I'm in my thirties, and I'm playing with guys who are very young. I'm not going to lead them down the wrong path. I see myself showing by example, leading by example. Carl is the captain but he's got little leaders. You got Jacobs, myself, Chanderpaul, all these guys who have got to show the right approach."
He's not doing a bad job. After Day Three of the deciding Test against India at Jamaica, Mervyn Dillon, fresh from his first five-wicket haul informed reporters that "Lara had a chat with the guys yesterday. He said a few things that really helped me take a step in the right direction. It will help all of the guys over the next two days of this crucial Test."
Who knows where Brian Lara will end up. He doesn't regard himself as the best batsman in the world. "I don't even think about it. I appreciate every batsman in the world for different reasons. If I want someone to tough it out in the middle, I'd pick Steve Waugh. If I want someone who I know is going to have the technique to survive, you want a player like Tendulkar. Then you got the Gilchrists...."
He himself only wants to be remembered as a team player and as someone who played cricket the way people want to see it played. "I just want that someone in their 50s or 60s, when they talk about Brian Lara, they say `I enjoyed watching that guy playing cricket'. "
It's a fair ambition. Brian Lara has lived the life of so many people and he has so entertained us. He has the right to slow down. But he gives the feeling that he knows, more than ever before, that his is a genius that cannot be tossed away. Brian Lara has found a balance - and he looks good for it.