Saturday, May 28, 2011

My Favourite Cricketer: Brian Lara

The first Balanced Sports and World Cricket Watch: "My Favourite Cricketer" is penned by the editor of WCW, David Siddall. It features the Samba King of West Indian batsmanship, Brian Lara.

From the age of 13-18 this aspiring top order batsmen would spend their summer holidays practically living at the Stoughton and Thurnby Cricket Club nets. Honing the particularities of your batting technique was the order of the day. But it wasn’t any English batsmen we were attempting to emulate (possibly with the exception of Graham Thorpe’s late cut). Rather we’d play around with the low grip of Tendulkar, the seemingly straight bat pull shot of Ponting, and the high back-lift and ferocious bat-speed of Lara.

Analysing the three players, arguably the finest three batsmen of their generation, leads to never-ending debates pertaining to the all time batting pantheon. Frankly, this gets tedious in less time than Marcus Trescothick had to react to this tracer bullet beamer. In short, I’d go for 1) Tendulkar 2) Lara, and 3) Ponting. Tendulkar’s longevity and imminent hundred hundreds record – one way of looking at that is he must have several hundreds he doesn’t even remember – account for his top spot.

But this piece is about favouritism and not statistics. And the love of cricket, being such a heavily mediated sport, owes its success just as much to aesthetic appeal as it does to run getting. Of the three players, it is Brian Lara’s elegance and flamboyance that makes him my favourite cricketer.

Early on in his career, Lara was able to stand on the shoulder of giants – Viv Richards, Malcolm Marshall (immense at 5”11), Ian Bishop, Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh (both metaphorically and literally at 6”7 and 6”6 respectively) – in the tail end of West Indies dominance. In the latter half of his career, post 2000, West Indies cricket would fade, yet Lara would continue to make waves. And whether the West Indies was dominant or dormant, the hallmarks of Brian Lara’s batting would remain a constant.

These included aggression in attack and defence in equal measures, lightning footwork, fleet of foot to get down the pitch against the spinners, the highest back-lift in world cricket and the clunk of his back-lift unleashing timing that rivalled one of his idos – Viv Richards himself. He had a tendency to play every ball on its merits irrespective of the time of the day. Never has this been exemplified more than when he hit Robin Peterson for 28 runs in an over in Johannesburg in 2003-04 despite their being only 2 overs to go in the day.

Trademarks of the 466444 display are the shimmy down the wicket, 100% commitment to the stroke, and the lazy swing of the hands through the ball.

Besides the stunning aesthetics to the batting of Brian Charles Lara, he will go down in history as being the batsmen who turned big scores into mammoth scores time and time again. His maiden test match century, a whopping 277 in Sydney in only his 5th test, was a sign of things to come. Had it not been for an over zealous run out, in all likelihood it would have been a triple century.

Lara would go on to be the only batsmen in history to record a century, double century, triple century, quadruple century and quintuple (?) century in first class cricket. In 1994, Lara was at the height of his powers as he surpassed Sober’s test record score of 365* with a score of 375 against England in Antigua and recorded the highest ever first class score of 501* in the space of only a few months. During the same period he recorded 7 first class centuries in 8 innings. Just how much of an immovable force he was can be seen in the awe of the faces of his Durham opponents and his Warwickshire teammates alike in the following video…

But despite being named the 1994 and 1995 Wisden leading cricketer of the year, Lara would arguably save his greatest ever innings for the Australians with a modest (by his standards) match-winning 153* in a 1-wicket win in Barbados in 1999 in a game that Steve Waugh described the greatest test he’d ever been involved in. The Wisden 100 has named it the second greatest ever knock in test cricket only behind Don Bradman’s 270 for Australia v England at Melbourne in 1936-37.

Having hit a double hundred in the previous game to resurrect the series for the West Indies, this innings would swing the series in the West Indies favour as they would lead 2-1. The poignancy of the knock made even more unbelievable when you consider the West Indies had possibly come off the back of the lowest point in their history – a 5-0 thrashing at the hands of South Africa. At 248 for 8, still requiring another 60 runs for victory, Lara had to take the bull by the horns with only Ambrose and Walsh in the hutch. Lara the ‘Lone Ranger’ of the Windies batting lineup seemingly becoming the constant theme as his career progressed. Although you might think otherwise if you believe the version of events that Courtney Walsh spun (surviving 5 balls at the death).

To try and attempt to analyse the legacy of Brian Charles Lara is a tall order. It predominantly lies as a batsman rather than a captain (Lara did guide the West Indies to the 2004 Champions Trophy and led from the front admirably however). Statistically, the record for the highest ever test score is the obvious choice. It was a choice that Matthew Hayden almost dented having hit Zimbabwe for 380 in Perth in 2003.

Fittingly in April 2004, Lara, not to be outdone, became the first ever man to score 400 in a test match at the same ground where he surpassed Sober’s original record. With today’s over rates and endless stoppages, it is a score that is unlikely to be eclipsed. But Lara’s legacy should transcend far beyond that of mere batting records.

Besides meeting Barack Obama and having a fantastic cricket video game named after him, Lara was the most entertaining and most flamboyant batsman of his generation. His only criticism could be that he perhaps lacked the mental toughness that Tendulkar demonstrated unerringly for over 20 years.

Nevertheless, when in the mood (a caveat that seems to explain the low points in Lara’s career), Lara’s stonewall defence like Rahul Dravid, aggression and strokeplay likeVirender Sehwag, combined with his footwork to spinners that remains unrivalled in world cricket today made him simply unplayable.

If the cricketing pantheon does the great man any justice, the image and memories of his batting will be forever immortalised, alongside the biggest scores in cricketing history.

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