The genius of Brian Lara couldn't help West Indies regain World Cup glory
Brian Lara was an enigma. Once rated as unarguably the best batsman in the world, it was reckoned for some time thereafter that he was squandering his God-given gifts.
A man who had the skills and determination to record the highest scores in Tests as well as first-class cricket in a matter of weeks, was deemed to have a suspect temperament, throwing away his hand after playing a cameo far too often. As one who scaled dizzying heights early in his career, he perhaps found everything that followed as something of an anti-climax.
When fairy-tales give way to a daily grind, only the very resilient are able to make a smooth transition. Maybe that is where Lara was found wanting.
Thankfully for millions of his fans around the world though, Lara seemed to have realized, albeit a bit late, that he was not doing justice to the bountiful gifts he was endowed with.
That he is a rare talent can never be denied. Some of his strokes were matchless. Everyone can drive on the rise when the ball is coming nicely on to the bat. But consider a drive off the front foot on the rise to a slow, turning ball as it deviates away from the bat, which sends it whistling to the boundary bisecting the off-side field. That is a stroke of genius. That was Lara.
It is something that only a person blessed with the rarest of rare ability can accomplish. Lara’s supple wrists enabled him to play square either side of the wicket in brilliant fashion, and also chip the ball on the on-side.
His driving against the fast men was just as superb. The day Brian Lara was in good nick, was a sight for the gods.
That is what it was for a large part of the 1992 World Cup. Lara was the successor to legends like Vivian Richards and Gordon Greenidge, and was expected to carry the mantle in the tradition of great West Indian strokemakers. It was only his second year in international cricket, but news of his sublime skills had preceded his arrival.
He proved those predictions correct right away, putting to the sword a Pakistani attack that, barring Wasim Akram, lacked bite. In the company of the team’s elder statesman Desmond Haynes, Lara raised 175 runs for the first wicket in 37 overs.
He had scored 88 in brilliant fashion when an Akram yorker crunched on his foot, forcing him to retire. By then he had faced 101 balls and hit 11 fours. It was still a sweet World Cup debut as he walked away with the man-of-the-match prize.
There was an immediate setback though as he went for a duck against England. He put that behind him quickly, dominating the Zimbabwe bowling in a 78-run opening stand with his new partner, Phil Simmons.
Lara stroked a thrilling 72 off 71 balls with 12 boundaries to notch another win and also bag his second man-of-the-match award in his third appearance in the World Cup.
The yo-yo continued on its unpredictable journey with a reverse at the hands of South Africa, Meyrick Pringle causing immense damage. Contrasting fortunes in successive matches appeared to be in vogue as Lara hit another half-century and put up 65 in association with Haynes once again. But his knock of 52 failed to halt New Zealand’s brilliant run in the tournament.
Lara bucked the trend of alternate failures as he encountered India next, racing to 41 off 37 deliveries with a six and 6 fours. This, as it turned out, was crucial, as rain intervened to cut short the innings and settle the outcome on faster run-rate. He figured in another half-century opening stand with Haynes in this game.
But the yo-yo was back again as Lara fell early in the next match, though his team easily brushed aside Sri Lanka.
That left only the last game against Australia, with neither team in a position to make it to the semi-finals. Lara played a lone hand with a classy 70 off 97 deliveries. Still, the hosts won back some pride and the two sides ended the tournament level in fifth spot in the round-robin table, just one point behind eventual champions Pakistan.
This was not a tournament for past winners.
But Lara had caught the eye. He was easily the best batsman in the West Indies team, a tag that stuck. Statistics too emphasized the point as he topped the team’s run-aggregates as well as averages with 333 runs at 47.57 per innings.
That, so soon in his career, was remarkable. And from this point onwards he began his ascent to the very top. Mid-way between this World Cup and the next, Lara went on his record-shattering spree.
Even though he had betrayed a dislike for the slow wickets of the sub-continent the previous season, thereby exposing a chink in his armour, Lara played a good hand for his side in the 1996 World Cup.
Zimbabwe did not provide a testing lung-opener and Lara, coming in at 78 for one, batted as though it was net practice. He helped his team knock off the 70-odd runs needed for victory in double quick time. He slammed 5 fours and 2 sixes in his unbeaten 43 off 31 balls to begin the West Indies campaign on a high note.
The first real test came against India. Lara was adjudged caught behind by umpire Khizar Hayat for two off a fiery Javagal Srinath delivery, as the ball deviated away and lifted. It might have missed the edge. The West Indies were unable to set a large enough target for the home team.
The next match was forfeited, with the side unwilling to travel to Colombo.
Then on 29 February came one of the darkest days in the history of West Indies cricket. They were trounced by the part-time cricketers from Kenya, with Lara flailing his bat outside the off-stump and getting caught behind for 8, this time without controversy.
The West Indies were now in serious trouble, and only an exemplary display by the seniors against the redoubtable Australian side pulled them out of the abyss they had fallen into. Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh bowled splendidly. Then Lara and skipper Richie Richardson retrieved the situation after the openers had departed with just 26 runs on the board.
The two added 87 off 106 balls, before Lara lofted one straight to Glenn McGrath off Mark Waugh. By then he had scored 60 off 70 balls with 7 fours.
Richardson went on to play a superb knock, posting a desperately-needed win. The West Indies had just managed to recover their poise and scrape through to the quarter-finals.
The confrontation at Karachi was between a side that had struggled throughout the tournament, and one that had cruised along, winning all its five matches. The South Africans were a thoroughly professional unit and were reckoned to be a handful for a West Indies team in disarray.
But cricket has a way of scoffing at the form book, and the pundits. At times flair and sheer skill triumph over methodical, predictable play. This is what happened at the National Stadium: one ordinary day’s play put to naught nearly a month’s splendid performance by the Proteas.
Or maybe they just lost to the brilliance of one man. Lara dominated a second-wicket partnership of 138 with Shivnaraine Chanderpaul, the runs coming in 143 deliveries. It was the best second-wicket stand for the West Indies in the World Cup.
Lara put the bowling to the sword. He raced to his fifty in 45 balls and then went into overdrive, blasting Pat Symcox for 5 fours in one over, four in succession. Lara reached his first century in the World Cup off a mere 83 deliveries, in a truly delightful display.
This was the second-quickest hundred in the World Cup, taking just one ball more than his great left-handed predecessor Clive Lloyd’s stupendous century in the 1975 final. When Lara was eventually out for 111, he had played only 94 balls and struck 16 boundaries.
That was enough to enable his side reach the semi-finals after failing to do so in the previous two editions of the tournament. Lara was obviously the man-of-the-match, and his performance reflected the amazing transformation that the team had undergone in the last two outings.
The top players seemed to be coming into form at the right time, and this was apparent in the manner in which they kept a tight hold on the game at the magnificent Punjab Cricket Association Stadium at Mohali. The Australians were able to post just 207 runs on a greenish wicket that afforded movement.
As Lara and Chanderpaul got into stride, the match seemed to be swaying decisively the Caribbean way. They put on 68 for the second wicket in 101 deliveries and, with Lara stroking away in characteristic fashion, looked poised to reach their goal.
Then the man often deployed to break partnerships, Steve Waugh, got into his act and beat Lara, dislodging the bails. Lara had scored 45 off the same number of balls with 4 fours.
Even after his exit the West Indies appeared to be coasting, with Chanderpaul and Richardson in control. But lightning struck in the last nine overs on this clear balmy night, and the West Indies lost by five runs.
It was a good, if not totally satisfying, tournament for Lara. He was overshadowed by the deeds of men like Sachin Tendulkar, Mark Waugh, Aravinda de Silva and Sanath Jayasuriya. His team too was erratic even though it had its moments of glory.
If 1996 was a mixture of elation and despair, 1999 was an unmitigated disaster. Lara had scores of 11, 25, 36, 25 not out and 9. This was abysmal for a man of his class.
It was also in keeping with the trend of Lara’s inconsistent performances during that period. His performance was definitely not commensurate with his reputation or class, nor with his deeds in the previous two World Cups.
Not surprisingly, the West Indies failed to qualify for the super-six stage.
Between innings of sheer genius, Lara sometimes looked listless. He produced streaks of brilliance, reeling off a succession of big scores and match-winning knocks, and then wandering into the domain of ordinary mortals. Perhaps super success came far too early in Lara’s career. He was then only 25.
Wesley Hall, in his report to the West Indies Cricket Board after the tour of England in 1995, wrote: "The commercial demands on his time is like an albatross round his neck. I have continuously told him to focus on the positive and not be afraid of pressure, always remembering that pressure is what turns a lump of coal into a diamond."
Thereafter he showed flashes of his genius but sustained radiance deserted him. Perhaps he was not able to concentrate as intensely as he did in the early days. He faltered maybe because he assumed the airs and manner of a mega-star.
On the other hand, Lara's great rival Sachin Tendulkar remained a modest team-man. That might explain why Tendulkar continued to ride high while Lara’s career graph witnessed huge spurts and dips.
But to Lara's credit, in 2001 he regained his magical touch and thereafter regularly carved out innings of rare brilliance.
There was great euphoria as hosts South Africa met the Caribbean charmers in the opening match of the 2003 World Cup at Newlands. Perhaps inspired by the occasion, Lara made the match his own.
He came in to bat at 4 for one in trying circumstances, after the openers had failed to score off the first three overs. Lady Luck smiled on him as he was dropped first ball by Jacques Kallis at second slip off Makhaya Ntini.
The second wicket fell at 7. After 10 overs the score was 12 for two.
Gradually, Lara seized control. It was hard to believe that this was his first international appearance after being down for months with hepatitis. The Lara hallmark was in evidence all over, twinkling toes taking him to the pitch of the ball, and flashing wrists placing it just where he wished at the last moment.
A defence made up of the straightest bat, head low and right over the ball, and shots executed by fully utilising the width of the crease, had the bowlers exasperated. Though no one was to know it then, his magnificent straight six off Allan Donald marked the beginning of the end of the great fast bowler’s career.
A splendid flick over mid-wicket emphasized how much Lance Klusener had slowed down. Lara raised 102 for the third wicket with Chanderpaul and another 89 with skipper Carl Hooper.
He left after what Mark Nicholas described as “a mesmeric innings”, having scored 116 delightful runs off 134 deliveries, embellished with 12 fours and 2 sixes.
West Indies clinched a narrow three-run win, and Lara his fourth man-of-the-match award in 20 World Cup matches.
That, alas, was to be Lara’s only innings that mattered in this event, as the team lurched in key matches. He was run out for 2 in a 20-run defeat at the hands of New Zealand. The West Indies lost valuable points as rain forced the abandonment of the match against Bangladesh.
Lara had to graft his way to 46 off 76 balls while the Willowmoore Park pitch retained its early moisture, though his sedate knock was interspersed with five boundaries that bore his unmistakable stamp.
In contrast, the wicket at the SuperSport Park was a cracker as an unknown from Canada, John Davison, blasted the then fastest World Cup century. Repaying the compliment, Wavell Hinds smacked the swiftest fifty in the World Cup at the time off 24 deliveries, for Lara to better it by one ball almost immediately.
Lara smashed 26 runs off a Barry Seebaran over - rocketing 220.127.116.11.6.0 - the highest scored in a single over in the World Cup. Aussie Darren Lehmann bettered this by two runs off Namibian Rudi van Vuuren four days later.
Lara and Hinds put on 102 for the second wicket. In a display of rare brilliance, Lara faced just 40 balls in his innings of 73 studded with eight hits to the fence and five over it. West Indies cantered to victory, racking up 206 for three off 20.3 overs, the scoring-rate of 10.04 runs per over being the fastest ever in ODIs.
Thus far Lara was competing almost run-for-run in the tournament with his friend and constant rival for the No. 1 spot, Sachin Tendulkar. This match, however, was to end the fascinating battle in this event.
Facing Sri Lanka in the next game, Lara hung around for 22 balls with a solitary single against his name, and walked away the moment he edged Chaminda Vaas into the gloves of Kumar Sangakkara. The team lost by 6 runs, and the campaign was virtually over.
Before their last match began, the West Indies knew that they were out, and Kenya were already reveling in their achievement of having made it to the super-six stage. The former champions had to prove a point to their tormentors of 1996, which they did, but Lara was able to muster only 10 runs.
The next year Lara snatched back the record for the highest Test score from Matthew Hayden. In the final stretch of his career, Lara essayed some big knocks in Test matches, even breezing past Allan Border’s record aggregate. Ironically, Tendulkar struggled with injuries and consequent dips in form during this period.
As hosts, the West Indies played the 2007 tournament opener against Pakistan, starting out on just the right note in Lara’s swansong. He pencilled himself in at No. 5, and put on 91 valuable runs for the fourth wicket with Marlon Samuels. Though he fell for 37, his side registered an easy triumph.
The inexperienced Zimbabwean team did not offer much resistance. Lara ushered in victory with his 44 not out in an unbroken 75-run fifth-wicket partnership with Dwayne Bravo.
Their last Group D match with debutants Ireland was an even simpler exercise and Lara was not even required to bat. It was a cent percent record in the first stage of the event.
They came crashing down to earth as they ran into an awesome Australian team. A Matthew Hayden-inspired total of 322 was too much for the West Indies to chase. When Lara sauntered to the crease at 20 for three in the 10th over, the writing was already on the wall.
He added 71 for the fourth wicket with Ramnaresh Sarwan, and then 49 in just 7 overs for the sixth wicket with Denesh Ramdin. Lara scored 77 off 83 balls with 8 fours and a six.
The slide continued as the Kiwi batsmen kept a stranglehold. Lara added 47 for the fifth wicket with Bravo, but departed for 37. His side collapsed to 177 all out, which did not test the opponents.
With Jayasuriya in tremendous form, Sri Lanka handed out another drubbing, Lara suffering his first real failure.
The South Africans were also too strong with AB de Villiers striking a big hundred. Lara could put together just 21 runs, and despite heroics from Sarwan, the West Indies fell far short.
Four straight defeats were enough to wipe away all chances of booking a semi-final place. Their victory over Bangladesh, then, was small consolation. Now batting at No. 6, Lara hit up 33 off 27 balls with a four and 2 sixes. Bangladesh put up a poor batting show.
The last super-eight match with England was significant only as Lara’s farewell game, as neither side was in a position to advance any further. They played out a high-scoring thriller that England clinched by one wicket off the penultimate delivery.
Lara entered to a thunderous ovation at one-drop after the openers had raised 131. He was stroking the ball nicely, striking three boundaries, but was tragically run out when Samuels sent him back.
One of the most exquisite batsmen the game had ever seen, trudged back for the final time having scored 18 off 17 deliveries. There was no fairy-tale ending.
It was a World Cup full of cameos for the departing captain. His team too failed to rise to the occasion on home turf. The Prince of Trinidad finished third at the time behind Tendulkar and Ponting in the list of run-getters in the premier event, with 1225 runs at a brisk strike-rate of 86.26.
Some of Lara’s achievements are astounding. The only man to score 500 runs in a first-class innings and 400 runs in a Test innings, he broke the record for the highest score in Test matches twice, a decade apart. He was the highest Test run-getter before yielding the exalted status to Tendulkar, and scored 10,000 runs in ODIs too. There were few sights as exhilarating as that of Lara conjuring his magic with the willow.
Lara’s World Cup batting and fielding record:
Matches 34, Highest Score 116, Runs 1225, Average 42.24, Strike-rate 86.26, Hundreds 2, Fifties 7, Catches 16
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