Brian Lara - The Lean Years
"You could really and truly divide my career in three stages: pre 1995, that period between 95 and early 99, and the remainder of my career. And even if you look at my batting you would see that the first and the third part being very, very good, up there with the best. And then obviously the middle period was something that sort of dragged me down."
(Brian Lara, ITV Sport interview)
Brian Lara ended his Test career with an average of 53.17. But from the time of the West Indies’ tour of India in late 1994 to the South African visit that ended in February 1999 he averaged just over 44 runs per innings in Tests. For most other players this would have been a respectable run. The Trinidadian was no ordinary player, however, and that period of his career was one of underachievement.
Setting a field to Lara while in full stride was a perfunctory exercise that captains engaged in simply to fulfill their role, since there was scarcely any hope of containing him. He, more than any other player of his time, had the ability to make fielding a pointless profession.
It is difficult to imagine any batsman possessing a wider range of strokes, and the amplified backlift indicated a fondness for playing them. His degree of precision was such that it is only a mild exaggeration to say he could hit any patch of grass he aimed for, and sometimes gave the impression that he could hit any delivery to the boundary.
Adam Gilchrist told of a passage of play on their visit to the Caribbean in 2003: they removed the deep midwicket and placed him behind point, making it two fielders in that general area. After decrying the futility of the move Lara launched the next delivery over midwicket for six.
Gilchrist then challenged him to take on the two men behind point; Lara immediately bisected them…twice, and it’s not like the deliveries were particularly accommodating to the kind of shots played either.
These were skills that set him apart from all others; skills that made him one of the most feared willow-wielders of all time. Dubbed the Prince of Port of Spain from his early days he would soon ascend the throne as the king of batsmen.
A majestic 277 came in 1992 at Sydney and hinted at things to come. By 1994, after surpassing Garfield Sobers’ Test record with 375 at Antigua, and claiming the first-class record score with 501 not out for Warwickshire against Durham, he was launched squarely into the limelight.
The Trinidadian’s star was now the brightest one in the firmament and cricket fans everywhere basked in its light.
But the cares of the crown were burdensome and the newfound status came with all kinds of demands from fans and media - demands that would have tested the most thoroughly prepared veteran, but were particularly disruptive to a young man from a small Caribbean Island, ill-equipped to handle such intrusions and distractions.
Placed under intense pressure, the batting genius wilted. Not only was his game affected but, by his own admission, he didn’t always act prudently in testing situations.
Late in 1994 the West Indies toured India under the new leadership of fast-bowling great Courtney Walsh who temporarily replaced the ailing Richie Richardson. Lara seemed less focused than usual and it was left, principally, to Walsh and Jimmy Adams to defend the West Indies’ proud record.
Fans were only reminded of Lara’s high quality by a speedy 91 in the last Test as the West Indies fought to gain a desperate victory that tied the series and ensured they maintained their slackening hold on their title as undefeated champions - a title that was finally ripped from their grasp by Australia when they beat the West Indies 2-1 on their 1995-94 Caribbean visit.
There was much discord in the Caribbean side on their 1995 visit to England and Lara was in the thick of it. A fierce confrontation during a team meeting with captain Richardson, who Lara felt was insufficiently enforcing team discipline, left the left-hander fuming as he walked out, shockingly declaring, according to manager Wes Hall, that he had retired from the team. The legendary fast bowler also reported that Lara had proclaimed a number of times that cricket was "ruining" his life.
After a few days, however, West Indies Board President, Peter Short, convinced Lara to return to the side, apparently promising him that no punishment would be imposed. This was later to be the cause of more conflict when Lara withdrew from the 1995-96 triangular ODI series in Australia after a fine of 10 per cent of his England tour fee was levied. Nonetheless, amid all the turmoil, the batting magician managed to weave three sublime hundreds in the last three Tests.
England toured the Caribbean in early 1998 and the captaincy that Lara had long coveted was finally his. Walsh was appointed when Richardson retired at the end of 1996 World Cup. And though the selectors thought Lara should have replaced the fast bowler prior to the unfortunate 1997-98 three-Test Pakistan tour, which the West Indies lost 0-3 and Lara averaged 21.5, the board overruled their recommendation and Walsh was retained - a decision Lara described as “unfortunate.”
The Trinidadian left-hander was convinced he was equipped as a leader to guide the West Indies back to the pinnacle of world cricket. He was sadly mistaken.
Years of plenty, when they ran roughshod over all comers, were followed by years of famine, when they failed to seriously challenge the game’s best sides as talent that gushed from the Caribbean in torrents in the 70s and 80s slowed to a drizzle as the 90s took shape.
It mattered little who was at the helm; the fact that great players like Gordon Greenidge, Desmond Haynes, Viv Richards and Malcolm Marshall were being replaced, largely, by less capable ones meant that the West Indies side lacked the quality to take them anywhere near the top.
Lara’s tenure started brightly enough: the English tourists were beaten 3-0, with the new captain batting consistently well throughout the series without being at his best, averaging 51.2 over nine innings. Then came the disastrous 1998-99 tour of South Africa.
Protracted negotiations in London after the players refused to proceed until better terms were agreed with the board delayed the start of the tour. The Board sacked the leaders, Lara and Carl Hooper, then reinstated them, and for some time the tour was in real jeopardy.
When hostilities finally got underway a disjointed West Indies proved no match for the hosts and the test series was surrendered 0-5, Lara again falling short with the bat, averaging just 31. His number of Tests without a century now stood at 14, and fans and pundits began to openly suggest that the gifted batting master might never again ascend to the dizzying heights he once occupied.
Then in 1999 the mighty Australians came to the Caribbean. Following the South African debacle Lara was placed on a two-match probation by the board, and things could hardly have gotten any lower when the West Indies were decimated for 51 in the second innings of the first Test in Trinidad, losing the game by 312 runs.
A sombre Caribbean side stumbled into Jamaica for the second Test with little hope of a turnaround, especially after losing four wickets for 37 runs late on the first day in reply to Australia’s 256. The only thing the hosts had to hang on to was the fact that Lara was still there on seven. Still, no one could have expected the second day to turn out the way it did: the West Indies captain, with the weight of the whole world on his shoulders, pummeled the tourists for the entire day, his efforts resulting in a wondrous 213 that slowed the rampaging Australians and spurred the West Indies to an unexpected win.
Lara’s innings in the next test in Barbados is even more highly acclaimed than his double-century in Jamaica. When the end came the West Indies were nine wickets down and their captain stood undefeated on a remarkable 153, possibly the greatest performance in a career replete with great performances.
In the next game in Antigua he raced to another hundred in just 84 deliveries. The king was reclaiming his throne.
Yet no matter how well he played he was powerless to stop the freefall of the West Indies, and after a disappointing 1999-2000 visit to New Zealand Lara resigned citing "devastating failures." For the most part, he remained at the top of his game for the rest of his career and even retrieved the Test batting record in 2004, scoring 400 not out against England at his happy hunting ground in Antigua.
Lara played his last international game against England in the 2007 World Cup. During the post-game interview he turned to the crowd and asked, "did I entertain you?"
"Yes," the crowd responded in unison. Entertainment, after all, is what it is about.
© Crcket World 2014