SK Flashback: Lara's theme halts South African juggernaut in the World Cup 1996 quarter-final
Brian Lara did not always relish the slow wickets of the sub-continent. With a penchant for playing even spinners on the rise, he was rarely happy with the ball not coming on to the bat. And there was a pitch which offered turn and also bounced. The opponents, South Africa, were in prime form, having won ten consecutive matches, including five in a row in the round-robin stage of the present competition. But when Lara was in good nick, little else mattered.
He came in at 42 for one-off just six overs and took charge right away. Using his wrists in inimitable fashion, Lara cut and flicked the pacemen. When the spinners came on he used his feet, and also employed the sweep to good effect. He raced to his fifty off just 45 deliveries, and then clouted Pat Symcox for 22 runs in an over, including five boundaries, four of them off successive balls. These were glimpses of the Lara of 1994, who broke the records for the highest individual scores in Tests as well as first-class cricket. Since then his career was chequered for a few years until he shifted into overdrive. On this day he was at his effervescent best.
South Africans are usually an efficient, professional side. But they found themselves helpless when faced with the awesome talent of Lara in such a brilliant touch. The seam of Shaun Pollock, Craig Matthews, Brian McMillan, and Hansie Cronje came to him as easy as the contrasting spin of Pat Symcox and Paul Adams. In this mood, no bowler troubled him as he toyed with all that was hurled at him, in his cavalier style. Being slight of build, not for him were shots of power. Rarely did he loft the ball. He wielded his bat with the deftness of touch of a born artist. Some of the strokes were patently his own - playing late, waiting for the ball to do what it had to off the pitch, and then guiding it with extremely skillful wrists. Unlike Mohammad Azharuddin, who used his wrists to flick the ball towards the on-side, Lara's wristwork enabled him to place the ball with a lightness of touch on the off-side as well. Hardly ever did you hear the thump of the ball against Lara's bat. He seemed to merely caress it most of the time.
In the company of Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Lara added 138 runs for the second wicket in just under 25 overs. By then the West Indies had reached 180 in 30.5 overs and poised for a total of 300. Lara cruised on, reaching his first World Cup century off 83 deliveries in his 13th match, having hit five half-centuries earlier. This was the second-quickest in the event, taking one ball more than Clive Lloyd's hundred in the 1975 final. Lara proceeded to notch up 111 runs off just 94 balls with 16 hits to the fence. With this, he lifted his average in the premier event to over 50. After his departure, the West Indies innings lost momentum somewhat, but Lara had already ensured that his side's total would be enough to get them into the semi-finals. "The difference was Lara", rued Cronje.
Not for nothing was Lara considered a temperamental genius. When in form, there was no sight quite like him in international cricket. It is also a fact that in the four years prior to this tournament - and after - the West Indies relied almost exclusively on Lara, Richie Richardson and Chanderpaul to get the runs. And so was it in their last three matches, in which they performed so well, in the 1996 tournament. Perhaps Lara felt uninspired in a lacklustre team. Whatever it was, innings like the one at Karachi were few and often far between during that phase from this immensely gifted player.
West Indies: 264 for 8 wickets (50 overs), South Africa 245 all out (49.3 overs) (CWC 1996)