The entertainer departs

You don’t really want to remember great players like this: Brian Lara filling his boots, not with runs but dollars, in the fledgling Indian Cricket League at a far-flung cricketing outpost on the outskirts of Chandigarh, the surroundings of Panchkula more scrub than stadium.

Puffy-cheeked and short of inspiration is no way to remember the most instinctive, attractive batsman of his era, so it was slightly appropriate that he made a match-winning century for Trinidad & Tobago in an attempted comeback a few weeks later. In any event, he was denied the grand farewell to his international career that two other modern-day greats, Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, were accorded last year in Sydney, with the Ashes in the bag and the public paying full homage. At the magnificently revamped Kensington Oval, Lara had the setting all right, but not the script to match.

Responding in turns to Marlon Samuels’s confused calls for a single, Lara shuffled forwards, backwards and then finally towards the pavilion for the last time. For once, he was at the mercy of events, rather than controlling them. Even now, at the end of his career, Lara could not escape the intrigue and controversy that accompanied his cricket from the moment in Antigua in 1994 that he broke Sir Garfield Sobers’s world record for the highest score in Tests. For some said Samuels had been disillusioned about the way Lara as captain had treated him, and this was the ultimate payback. Others said the cock-up confirmed the deep malaise within the West Indies team, that not even the basics could be executed competently – a malaise, moreover, in which Lara was deeply complicit. All this was a pity.

Quite how Lara could have come to evoke such visceral and conflicting opinions, at a time when West Indies were not exactly flush with talent, is one for West Indian cricket historians. For some in the Caribbean, those two developments – Lara’s ascent to greatness and the decline of the West Indies team – are interwoven; for others, he was simply unlucky with his timing, and the fact that he was a great player in an undeniably shabby side merely added lustre to his reputation. Some day, someone from inside the West Indies dressing-room will write the definitive tale. It should be quite a read, failure being more interesting than success.

Lara’s quixotic impact within the four walls of the West Indies dressing-room is, anyhow, beyond the scope of this appreciation. Lara the batsman can be assessed objectively on what we saw, rather than what we did not see. And any fair-minded assessment could only conclude that he must be one of the finest entertainers to have played in this or any other era.

For entertainment was the creed by which he lived as a batsman. Many talk the talk but Lara, undeniably, walked the walk. Records and statistics must have been important to him – how else does a batsman galvanise himself to score 501 in a county match against Durham? – but the means were never sacrificed to the ends. ‘Did I entertain you?’ he bellowed to the spectators in the newly minted Kensington stand at the end of his last match. They cheered, but not loudly enough. ‘Did I entertain you?’ he asked again. And even those in the anti-Lara camp could not deny it.

It is the West Indian way, of course. If, broadly, batsmanship can be split into two schools – the roundheads and the cavaliers – then West Indies have always specialised in the latter. It is the main reason why West Indies cricket is so cherished beyond narrow international boundaries and why the current decline is felt so deeply and so widely. Cricket, put simply, is more fun played the West Indian way. It is to Lara’s great credit that, whatever the circumstances, he stayed faithful to that particular creed.

Lara was in the tradition of great batsmen for whom the fundamentals were essentially self-taught, for whom technique was always the servant and not the master. His eye for the ball and his coordination were granted by nature, and nurture in Trinidad did the rest. With his brothers and the community of Cantaro in the Santa Cruz valley to sustain him, Lara’s upbringing may not have been as solitary as Don Bradman’s, but his early methods bring the Don to mind: for a stump and a golf ball substitute a broomstick and a lime or a marble. Such was his subsequent impact as a schoolboy batsman that Tony Cozier would write in these pages of his record-breaking spree in 1994 that ‘there was no real surprise among his countrymen – simply the feeling that his inevitable date with destiny had arrived rather more suddenly than expected’.

This schoolboy brilliance did not, it must be said, extend to the Youth World Cup in Australia in 1988, when I first came across Lara as an opposing captain. Word certainly had it that he was special, but a combination of poor outback pitches and fierce heat (appropriately, James Boiling had a good tournament for England) made batting far from easy. With just one half-century in the tournament, Lara flopped. But within three years he was captaining Trinidad and had become the owner of a maroon cap. Two years later, he played his great innings of 277 at Sydney, described by Rohan Kanhai, no stranger to instinct and individuality at the crease, as ‘one of the greatest innings I have ever seen’.

There was no looking back after that – only a question of how far he would go and how many records he would break. What, then, made him stand out? Four things, I think. Barry Richards once said of Garry Sobers that he was the only 360-degree player in the game. He was referring, I think, to his back-lift and follow-through, which routinely travelled through a full arc. Lara might well be described so, too, not just for his back-lift, which reached the perpendicular when he was ‘on the go’, but also for where he could hit the ball – if not quite 360 degrees, then as near as dammit. No other contemporary player, save perhaps Mohammad Azharuddin, could deflect the ball so finely and so powerfully with a turn of the blade and flick of the wrists. Lara had subtlety in an age of power and brute force.

This unrestricted repertoire, the widest of arcs being open to him, and the ability to hit good balls to the boundary made him uniquely feared by opposing captains. You might worry about Adam Gilchrist, say, butchering an attack and smashing a bowler to smithereens, but Lara made captains, not bowlers, look silly. If you knew you were going to die, you’d prefer a single bludgeoning blow to the head, or a quick bullet to the brain, rather than death by a thousand ever-so-precise cuts. Eleven fielders were never enough; there were always gaps to plug. When he scored his 375 against my England team, I remember moving first slip out when Lara had scored 291. He edged the very next ball right where first slip had been. I’d love to know whether it was deliberate; I always doubted it, simply on the basis that such a level of genius was beyond my comprehension.

Thirdly, Lara was undoubtedly the best player of spin in his era, an era that did not lack for world-class spinners. There might not have been such abundance of quality as before, but in Anil Kumble, Muttiah Muralitharan and Shane Warne, he came up against three of the greatest ever. No one has played Murali better than Lara in Sri Lanka in 2001-02. He hit 688 runs at 114 and reduced the maestro to impotency (against everyone else Murali was omnipotent, bowling Sri Lanka to a 3–0 win). It was no coincidence, perhaps, that it was against Lara’s West Indies in 1999 that Warne was dropped for the first and last time in his Test career.

That series saw Lara at the peak of his powers, and his unbeaten 153 to win the Barbados Test is the fourth reason he stood out. Great batsmen play great innings, and on that day Lara created, I believe, the best innings I have seen either as player or observer of the game. England were watching in Lahore, where we were preparing for the 1999 World Cup, and no other contemporary batsman would have had the effect of keeping a bunch of professional cricketers glued to the screen until the small hours of the morning. It was a stunning innings. ‘Christ,’ one of the team said to me, ‘I wish you’d get as excited by some of our players.’ Well, honesty always was my downfall.

Only one reason prevents this observer from placing Lara at the apex of modern West Indian batsmen. Against extreme pace he got hit too often, and he could seem extraordinarily jumpy at the crease. I’ve often wondered what kind of effect removing helmets would have on modern-day players, a hypothetical that doesn’t apply to Vivian Richards.

Still, to hold both Test and first-class records for the highest innings, and thrill a generation of watchers in the process, is something Lara can look back on with a great deal of pride. Warne, assessing the cricketers he played against, was once heard to say that Sachin Tendulkar came first, daylight second and Lara third. That may be so. But who would you rather watch? The answer is not in doubt: a Lara innings was always a thing of beauty, no matter who the beholder.

This article originally appeared in the 2008 edition of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack