Sunday, September 15, 2013

Excerpts from Indra Vikram Singh's book 'Don's Century' ..... 28 - Chapter 7 : PEERLESS RUNGETTER AND OTHER MASTERS OF THE WILLOW (33. Brian Lara)

When in the mood, Brian Lara was a genius, no less. Caribbean flair, and not any textbook principles, was the hallmark of his batting. High backlift, braced knees, a hop this way and that in the crease, flashing blade and terrific bat speed, and deft wrist-work on either side of the wicket were characteristics of his inimitable style. When he put his mind to it, he was amongst the very best ever, in the traditional form perhaps next only to Bradman.

As super success embraced him, Lara was quick to assume the airs of a megastar. Petulance, brushes with authority and stormy personal life began to cast a shadow over his career. For a long time it seemed that he might go the way of so many hugely talented sportsmen like George Best who frittered away their God-given gifts and ultimately destroyed themselves.

It is said that the pressure of expectations got the better of Lara. To his credit, he broke free of the stupor and applied his mind to his batting, returning as one of the greatest rungetters the game has seen. The difference between Lara and Tendulkar - hugely talented as both are in their unique ways - was that Tendulkar remained grounded, a dedicated player, committed team man, modest and content in the security of family life. He never allowed the unprecedented adulation to swamp him, nor did the burden of having to perform constantly stifle him. He sailed along, darling of millions, everyone’s very own endearing Sachin. If he had a flaw, as we have already discussed, it was that he would get carried away by his own brilliance and give his wicket away when there were many, many more runs for the taking.

That 277 at Sydney in 1992-93, Lara’s first Test hundred, when the West Indies were desperately defending their status as top dogs, was only advance notice of what was to follow. Lara emulated Bradman by holding the records for the highest scores in Tests as well as first-class cricket. Sir Garfield Sobers walked on to the Antigua Recreation Ground to embrace Lara as the new hero went past his Test record. In that 1993-94 series against England, Lara hit up 798 runs at an average of 99.75.

The world had still not stopped applauding Lara when he astounded everyone by piling up an unbeaten 501 for Warwickshire versus Durham at Birmingham. It was a new frontier - as a famous television series on space odysseys declared - where no man had gone before. In a matter of days he did what no batsman, not Grace nor Bradman, had done in 117 years. The English bowlers must have dreaded the sight of his punishing blade as he carved out 765 runs in the six-Test series on their soil in 1995 at an average of 85.

In between, Lara had not relished the slower wickets of India during the 1994-95 series. Not long after, when the euphoria of having scaled great highs so early in his career wore off, Lara began appearing listless and disinterested. It was akin to the feeling of unease that Bradman experienced in 1932, but Lara’s malaise was more severe. Bradman never allowed his performances to dip, Lara could not defy his slump.

He recovered, to the good fortune of cricket-lovers around the world. The first sign of a turnaround came in 1998-99. That season his stock had slumped to abysmal depths in South Africa as the West Indies were trounced 5-0 in the Test series. Then they were beaten by Australia in the first Test at home. There were shrill voices all around demanding that Lara be stripped of the captaincy. And then he struck. He scored a superb 213 to lead the West Indies to victory over Steve Waugh’s side at Kingston. In the very next Test at Bridgetown he carried his team to an exhilarating one-wicket triumph with a stupendous unbeaten 153. So gripping was the game that the Jamaican prime minister postponed meetings to watch the finale. The West Indies actually led the series 2-1 now, and Lara was again being hailed as a superhero everywhere. This was akin to Bradman’s stirring fightback in 1936-37, but not quite as decisive in the end. The Australians eventually levelled the series, but Lara had once again shown what he was really capable of.

The big turnaround eventually came in 2001-02 in the Emerald Island after a prolonged illness. He began with his 221 off the Sri Lankan bowling at Colombo in that landmark season. In three Tests, Lara scored 668 runs at an average of 114.66 with 3 hundreds. Though he suffered a serious arm injury as a result of a mid-pitch collision, he came back stronger than ever. Since that series, in the last six years till his retirement from Test cricket in 2006-07, he scored an average of a Test double century a year.        

When Sri Lanka made a return visit to the Caribbean islands the next season, Lara slammed 209 at Gros Islet. After he regained the captaincy in 2003, and perhaps consumed by a burning desire to finish his career in a blaze of glory, Lara was unstoppable. He played two big knocks in the 2003-04 season. He first slammed 202 against South Africa at Johannesburg. During the course of that innings he hit the highest number of runs in an over in Test cricket. He smashed Robin Peterson for, a total of 28 runs.

Matthew Hayden had taken away Lara’s Test record that season. The Prince of Trinidad, though, was not ready to be dethroned. And so Hayden had the pleasure, and privilege, of being Test cricket’s top-scorer for only a few months.  Lara returned to the same venue and against the very opponents of a decade earlier and reclaimed his coveted record. Again he went to a territory no Test cricketer had treaded before, reaching 400 before he returned unconquered. He had emulated Bradman by hitting up two scores of 300-plus in Test cricket. India’s Virender Sehwag joined the club at Chennai in 2007-08. But while Bradman was never able to reset the Test record, Lara, incredibly, got it back. That there was a gap of a decade between the two high watermarks, makes his achievements even more laudable.

165*   Charles Bannerman   Aus v Eng   1876-77
211     Bill Murdoch              Aus v Eng   1884    
287     Reginald Foster          Eng v Aus   1903-04
325     Andy Sandham         Eng v WI     1929-30
334     Don Bradman            Aus v Eng   1930
336*   Wally Hammond       Eng v NZ     1932-33
364     Len Hutton                Eng v Aus    1938
365*   Gary Sobers                WI v Pak     1957-58
375     Brian Lara                 WI v Eng      1993-94
380     Matthew Hayden     Aus v Zim    2003-04
400*   Brian Lara                 WI v Eng      2003-04
Then in Adelaide in 2005-06, as if to rub it into the Aussies, Lara overtook Allan Border’s record Test aggregate, celebrating his achievement by bringing up another double century, hitting up 226. In a final hurrah, Lara crashed 216 against Pakistan at Multan in 2006-07, his last season. He blazed to what was the tenth-quickest hundred in Test cricket, off a mere 77 deliveries, blasting 26 runs - - off a Danish Kaneria over. Lara has nine scores of 200 or more in Test cricket, second only to Bradman, who had twelve.

He walked away from the Test arena with 11,953 runs in his kitty at an average of 52.88 with 34 centuries in 131 matches. He did many things that Bradman did not manage - the Test record twice, 500 in first-class cricket, 400 in a Test innings, and the highest aggregate. Was Lara better than Tendulkar? This depends on which aspects of the game you cherish more. For nonchalantly churning out huge scores, Lara was in the top bracket; for performing steadily and mastering all types of bowling and conditions in both forms of the game, Tendulkar has few peers.          

IN TEST CRICKET (above 1000 runs)
                                    Runs   Tests    HS      Ave     100s   Year
A. Shrewsbury (E)     1,277     23     164     35.47      3      1893
C. Hill (A)                   3,412     49    191     39.21       7     1912
J.B. Hobbs (E)             5,410     61    211     56.94     15     1930
W.R. Hammond (E)   7,249     85    336*   58.45     22     1947
M.C. Cowdrey (E)     7,624   114    182     44.06     22   1971-75
G.S. Sobers (WI)         8,032     93    365*    57.78     26     1974
G. Boycott (E)             8,114   108    246*    47.72     22     1982
S.M. Gavaskar (I)     10,122   125    236*    51.12     34     1987
A.R. Border (A)        11,174   156    205     50.56     27     1994
B.C. Lara (WI)          11,953   131    400*    52.88     34     2006
S.R. Tendulkar (I)     14,965   181    248*    56.25    51     2011

Lara joined Tendulkar as the only batsmen then to score 10,000 runs in Tests as well as One-day Internationals. Dravid, Ponting and Jacques Kallis joined the club later. In 299 One-dayers Lara accumulated 10,405 runs at an average of 40.48 and strike-rate of 79.51, with 19 hundreds. In the World Cup he scored two brilliant match-winning hundreds against South Africa, in the 1996 quarter-final, and the opening encounter in 2003. He has the third-highest aggregate of 1225 runs in the showpiece event - behind Tendulkar and Ponting - at an average of 42.24 and strike-rate of 86.26. The fastest fifty of the competition stood to his name, off 23 balls against Canada at Centurion in 2003, until bettered in 2007.

For all his dazzling strokeplay, one often did not hear the thump of the ball against Lara’s bat. That was the result of his inimitable wristwork. He would guide the ball to untenanted areas of the field all round the wicket. What was utterly fascinating was that he did this on the rise to the slow bowlers as well, allowing the ball to turn, and then flicking it wherever he fancied. To work away a quick bowler is easy. To have done it to a spinner - and on the rise - is what made Lara extraordinary.

(Statistics in Don’s Century are updated till 27th August 2011, the 103rd birth anniversary of Sir Donald Bradman).

Author Indra Vikram Singh can be contacted on email

Indra Vikram Singh’s latest books 
published by Sporting Links:
A Maharaja’s Turf   ISBN 978-81-901668-3-6
The Big Book of World Cup Cricket   ISBN 978-81-901668-4-3
Don’s Century   ISBN 978-81-901668-5-0
Crowning Glory   ISBN 978-81-901668-6-7

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