Back on the throne

Print edition : May 07, 2004

Brian Lara celebrates after beating the world record, at St. John's, Antigua, on April 12. -

Brian Lara regains a record he once set, by scoring 400 (not out) with supreme confidence.

IT was Brian Lara's tribute to this great game. It was his innovative style of raising the standards of batsmanship and setting new goals for the present and future generations of cricketers. The pursuit of scaling greater heights will now be far more intense, for compiling an individual 400 runs in a Test innings will take some effort and time indeed. Unless, of course, Lara himself decides to raise the bar again.

The Trinidadian's mansion in Port of Spain, nestling amidst greenery and facing the savannah, is an important landmark on the scenic island. The local people take immense pride in pointing to Lara's house in the hills and his cricket, as they quickly shift the discussion to the left-hander's grand feats at home and overseas. He is a national treasure in Trinidad and Tobago, and a priceless gem for the natives of Antigua, who have enjoyed the rare privilege of watching Lara set new marks in batting brilliance.

Let us rejoice in the fact that Lara snatched the record back within six months from another modern-day cricketer who also revels in attacking and entertaining batsmanship. Let us also rejoice in the fact that Lara was back at the top of the list, for it would have been tragic had this majestic West Indian not regained the honour.

Lara, a batsman for all seasons, has been acknowledged the best in the world for years, and he deserves the distinction. True, Mathew Hayden, a viciously destructive batsman, batted his way into the record books with a well-crafted innings against Zimbabwe, but Lara's effort had come against a better opposition.

Lara's 375 runs against England at St. John's 10 years ago had been a flawless performance. It was an innings that captured the essence of quality batting,the stroke play as breathtaking as one could visualise. This effort was equally sensational, for Lara offered just one half-chance during his epic march.

From the time he arrived as a natural stroke-maker, Lara had promised to conquer all attacks with a consistency that only underlined his value to the game. He remained one of the most significant figures in cricket as he strode over all opposition with authority and served his team with distinction. It was another matter that the team continued to struggle.

It was often said that Lara lacked the temperament to be hailed as a man for the crisis, but his critics failed to notice his predicament when it came to adopting the right approach in the middle. Instructions required him to chain his attacking instincts but his heart drove him to play the way he was born to - whipping the bowlers around with disdain.

Comparisons were made every time Lara failed. It was said that Lara was not a team man. He was grossly misunderstood, for he never put self-interest ahead of the team. He valued the legacy of his glorious predecessors and nothing pained him more than those one-sided defeats. The West Indies cricket slid under his captaincy and his best efforts were not seen as best by his detractors.

Lara's battles were often with himself. It was a matter of steeling his resolve and it came to a stage where he did doubt his credentials. He went through very bad times as runs deserted him and his motivation to play the game went for a six. He found refuge in golf and it was said that he was close to giving up cricket.

Lester Armoogam, the late West Indian cheerleader, was close to Lara. He told me once how unfair criticism had shattered the batsman's confidence, 10 years after he made his international debut. "Why did I ever play this game?" Lara reportedly confided to Armoogam. It was a very difficult period for Lara, who was now considered a spent force. All because he had struck a bad patch.

For a sportsman who was a role model for millions of youngsters, Lara appeared lost. He treaded carefully and still encountered disaster as he got out to innocuous deliveries and looked a shadow of the brilliant batsman that he was. Lara faced his greatest test. Will he survive? Or perish?

Lara became a forgotten name in international cricket, literally. His loss of form coincided with the decline of West Indian cricket even though there were matches that he won with his bat alone. Two great knocks that separated him from the rest came against Pakistan and Australia as West Indies won Tests in nail-biting climaxes. But the world demanded more from this exciting 5 ft 5 inch left-hander who gave a new dimension to batting under pressure. It did not help if Lara scored and the team lost and in those defeats lay buried his substantial contributions.

His batting looked jaded in the series against England. His scores in the preceding eight innings had been 33, 36, 8, 0, 0, 23, 6 and 34 before he exploded with the unbeaten 400. It was typical Lara, hitting back when the world thought he had fallen. He had indeed, even as a growing number of former players in the entire West Indies demanded that Lara be sacked for the team's poor show. The response from Lara was typical of the man, unaffected by the happenings around him.

It was strange how critics forgot Lara's sublime batting in the three series preceding the one against England. His sensational acts in South Africa when he hit a century and a double; his attractive show against Zimbabwe when he played his part well; his consistency against Sri Lanka, including a double century. He was batting as solidly as he had in his fifth Test when he smashed the Australian bowlers to make 277 at Sydney 12 years ago, an innings that evoked praise from Don Bradman.

Lara has suffered bad patches at various stages of his career - some short and some long - but every time he has hit back in style with a big century. Nothing, of course, can signify his determination as the recent 400, a feat few could dream of. This was the Lara the world had known and it was good for the game that he emerged from the rut with a shining knock that belonged to the highest category.

For the discerning, nothing can be more trivial than comparisons between Lara and his contemporaries. Sachin Tendulkar has often acknowledged Lara as the best simply because of the joy that he brings to the spectators. Lara's brand of batting is unique - it is entertaining no doubt but it is absolutely authoritative too. For me, one of the finest examples of quality batting is Lara's handling of Muthiah Muralitharan.

Murali's forte is his ability to snare left-handers, but in Lara he encountered an opponent who was keen to settle a few points. The West Indian aggregated 572 runs in six innings with two outstanding innings of 221 and 178 once again highlighting his versatility. He could bat on bouncy tracks and dominate on spinner-friendly surfaces too. When Murali made life miserable for the rest, Lara treated him with disdain. It was a sight to behold as Lara would repeatedly dance down to drive Murali on either side, the ball never rising an inch above the grass. Rarely had a batsman excelled in such a rousing fashion as Lara on those completely bowler-friendly pitches in Sri Lanka. To this day, Murali regards Lara's performance in that series in 2001-02 as the best against his wily bowling.

It is a defining statement on Lara's technique that opponents have never pointed out a flaw in his approach. He has remained one of the few batsmen in history never influenced by the state of the pitch or the quality of the opposition. There has been enough evidence to prove that Lara is the most compact batsman of the modern era.

Batsmen like Lara are a rare happening and one should document his contribution to the game for posterity. He has had his brushes with the administrators, and at times with opponents and teammates, but he remains a precious jewel in international cricket. If there is a cricketer who would attract spectators to a Test arena, it is only Lara, with his own brand of pristine batsmanship.

Hail Lara for his monumental innings and salute him for emerging from the ashes, when the world treated him as one who belonged to the past. Lara has two firsts to his credit - the first to score 400 runs in a Test innings and the first to cross the 500-mark in a first-class innings. Considering Lara's abilities, he might as well become the first to slam a 200 in a one-day match. That well might be the motivation for this grand achiever who has settled the argument about who is the best in the world. Bob Willis, commentating at the moment he reached 400 at St. John's, remarked, "Perhaps he is the best batsman in the world." Why perhaps, when the majority of top-class bowlers rate Lara as the best. And that should settle the debate - Lara is the best indeed.

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