Brian Lara is easily one of the best batters the game has seen. Yet there was a period, lasting for over three years, that he was not the avaricious run-maker we had got used to, averaging 53.17 in Tests.
Yet, from the time the West Indies toured India in late 1994 to their visit to South Africa that ended in February 1999, his average was just over 44. That would’ve been quite respectable for the ordinary player. But the Trinidadian was not ordinary. And, for him, it was a period of underachievement.
This is what Lara said about that time in an ITV interview some years ago: “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.”
Setting a field to the left-hander, while he was in full flight, was a perfunctory exercise captains engaged in simply to fulfil their role. There was scarcely any hope of containing him. He, more than any other player of his time, had the ability to make fielding a futile exercise.
AB de Villiers and Virat Kohli both have an almost limitless repertoire of strokes, but it is difficult to imagine any batsman possessing a wider range than Lara. His degree of precision was such that it is only a mild exaggeration to say he could hit any patch of grass for which he aimed. It was a skill he spent hours honing ever since he was a boy. It apparently grew from the mock Test matches he played on his porch “using a broom handle or a stick as the bat and a marble as the ball”.
Dubbed the Prince of Port of Spain from his early days, he made his Test debut in 1990 in Lahore, making 44 and five in a drawn match. A majestic 277 in Sydney in 1992 hinted at things to come, and 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. He was now the king of batters. His 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. Those demands would have tested the most thoroughly prepared veteran and were particularly disruptive to a young man from a small Caribbean island, ill-equipped to handle such intrusions and distractions.
Under the intense glare of the spotlight, the batting genius wilted. Not only was his game affected, but, by his own admission, he didn’t always act prudently in certain 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 on their 1995-1994 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 left the left-hander fuming as he walked out, shockingly declaring, according to Manager Wes Hall, that he had retired from the team. Cricket, Lara said, was “ruining” his life.
After a few days, however, West Indies board President Peter Short convinced Lara to return, apparently promising him that no punishment would be imposed. This was later to be the cause of more conflict when Lara withdrew from the 1995-1996 triangular One-Day International series in Australia after he was fined 10 per cent of his tour fee. Nevertheless, amid all the turmoil, the batting magician still managed to weave three sublime centuries in the last three Tests.
England toured the Caribbean in early 1998 and the captaincy was finally his. Walsh was appointed when Richardson retired at the end of the 1996 World Cup. And, though the selectors thought Lara should have replaced the fast bowler prior to the unfortunate 1997-1998 three-Test Pakistan tour, the board overruled its recommendation and Walsh was retained — a decision Lara described as “unfortunate”. He averaged just over 21 in Pakistan and the West Indies lost 0-3. Lara was convinced he was equipped as a leader to guide the West Indies back to the pinnacle of world cricket. He was sadly mistaken.
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.
But then came the disastrous 1998-1999 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 a while the tour was in real jeopardy.
When hostilities finally got underway, a disjointed West Indies proved no match for the hosts. The Test series was surrendered 0-5. Lara again fell 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 rolled into the Caribbean.
Following the South African debacle, Lara was placed on a two-match probation by the board, and things could hardly have gone 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. When the game ended the West Indies were nine wickets down and their captain stood undefeated on a remarkable 153, possibly the greatest performance in a career brimming with great performances.
In the final game in Antigua he raced to another hundred in just 84 deliveries. The king had reclaimed his throne, and was to remain at or near the top till the end of his playing days.
Yet, no matter how well he played, he was powerless to stop the free fall 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 throng shouted back. Entertainment, after all, was a large part of what he was about.
Garfield Robinson is a Jamaican living in the US who writes on cricket for a few Indian and English publications. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or firstname.lastname@example.org.