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The Big Five who defined the era of batsmanship: Brian Lara

The Big Five Who Defined The Era Of Batsmanship: Brian Lara | Wisden
by Vaneisa Baksh 7 minute read

Brian Lara brought an extraordinary touch of magic to the game of cricket; lifting it into a realm way outside the conventional parameters of excellence, writes Vaneisa Baksh.

First published in 2013

In the 135 years or so that Test cricket has been played, just over 2,500 batsmen have been capped. It is striking that the five leading Test run-scorers of all time – ahead of 2500 others – all adorned the same era.

In order, they are: Tendulkar (329 innings, 15,921 runs), Ponting (287 innings, 13,378 runs) Kallis (280 innings, 13,289 runs), Dravid (286 innings, 13,288 runs) and Lara (232 innings, 11,953 runs). Except for Kallis, all have been Test captains. Except for Lara, who went in 2007, all retired in 2012 and 2013. Except for Lara, they are in the top five (with Steve Waugh) for having played in the most Tests.

Lara, at the lower end, may not seem the obvious choice for leader of that lot, but greatness cannot be measured purely by numbers. That they are all batsmen of class is indisputable. These are men who have made the heart leap by the sheer beauty of their strokes. Each one had his distinct style and signature stroke.

Greatness is a spectacular word, wearing a heap of accessories. To admit all the batsmen whose willows have made us weep for joy would be careless. It has to be the aggregation of different elements: stamina, character, ability, spirit, charisma; a broad range that feels impossible to define until, as you mentally collect qualities, an image of Viv Richards comes striding out to meet you from another era, and you just know. The greatest of this great bunch would have left the deepest imprint on the mind. For that is where cricket lives.

Reflecting on the five: on their careers, their teams, the circumstances of their time – cricket and otherwise – under which they established their stardom, it struck me that Lara had carried an unimaginably heavy load during his years as a player.

Of the five of them, representing India (two), Australia, South Africa and the West Indies, only Lara had the misfortune to have been part of a team that was unrelentingly skittering downhill for almost the entire duration of his career. Despite all his personal records, in his three stints as captain he would never know the thrill of leading a team with a formidable reputation – not even a competent one.

Tragically, he entered the game early enough to taste the ambrosia of success, but too late to savour it. He’s known personal glory many times over, but has not enjoyed the culture of victory.

While other teams had their ups and downs, none of our champions’ were as beleaguered as the West Indies team, where poor administration, a desperate lack of resources, scant facilities for fitness and training, little use of sport science and psychology, coupled with chronic adversarial relationships, meant existing in an environment that was most finely attuned to negative vibrations. The team could barely keep its head above water and indeed, drowned so many times it looked like a wet cat. How does a man repeatedly retreat into himself to extract superlative performances that are not simple match-winners (because most times they still lost) but are breathtaking displays of artistry?

He has vaulted above pedestrian definitions of ‘saving’ the game, and forced us to reconsider what cricket really means by taking us to the place of beauty, light and a redemption song that says salvation lies not in the final score, but in the sublime.

His capacity to rise when his feet have been shoved into buckets of wet cement and to take thousands soaring with him is a phenomenal trait that gives him just one of his decisive edges.

On the way to his record-breaking 400* in April 2004, that power to move the masses came forth on the Easter Monday morning as he resumed on 313. It didn’t matter that the series was already badly lost. Lara was taking West Indians on a redemptive journey. The placard on the grounds made it clear. OUR WOUNDS ARE HEALED.

He built many rooms for the house of cricket, kept it alive even when its breaths were shallow.

With world records for highest Test (375 and 400*) and first-class scores (501), from early, Lara established his appetite for big runs. The 277 in Sydney in his fifth Test was rated by Rohan Kanhai as one of the greatest innings he’d seen. “Back foot, front foot, timing, placement, against spin bowlers and fast bowlers alike. He was marvellous.” Of his 34 Test centuries, nine crossed 200, and 19 were more than 150. Only Don Bradman was so consistently capable of that focus, stamina and grit. He crossed 200 on 12 occasions, with 18 scores, nearly two thirds, over 150. Lara had shown the discipline and the concentration to build big scores.

Moreover, Lara was the master of the golden run of form. In 1994, shortly after Antigua’s record-breaking performance, he took off for England to pick up his new £40,000 contract with Warwickshire. In his debut on April 29, 11 days after the Antiguan spectacle, Lara scored 147 against Glamorgan. By May 23, he had collected five first-class centuries in a row, and another world record for consecutive first-class centuries was in sight. He missed it when he was out for 26 at Lord’s, but in the second innings he recovered enough to make 140 off 147 balls. The next month, he broke the first-class individual record with 501 runs at Edgbaston. He had become the first player to score seven centuries in eight first-class innings. Ten years later, he would regain his Test record with 400 not out in Antigua.

If the large appetite parlayed into big scores, it was the manner in which they were accumulated that made him unarguably the most exciting batsman of memory.

Lara’s innings did not begin at high noon as Neville Cardus said of Frank Worrell’s; they harboured the tentativeness of a night person greeting daybreak’s piercing rays. Yet, as that first cup of coffee can make everything right, when he got started it was high noon till sundown. And bowlers targeted him like packs of hunting wolves. Who could forget the epic battles between him and Glenn McGrath, Brett Lee?

Not to take anything away from the greatness of the other four, Brian Lara brought that extraordinary touch of magic to the game of cricket; lifting it into a realm way outside the conventional parameters of excellence.

For Lara’s game might have been played out on the cricket pitch, but its plot was a masterpiece written as a dazzling epic of what mankind at its best and worst can do.

More than any of the others, his cricket was ethereal; it made our hearts soar and sing, and even if the West Indies lost many matches, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

That is the height of greatness.

First published in 2014

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