“Did I entertain?”, a question was asked by a somewhat exasperated figure of a packed Barbados crowd on April 21, 2007, with Kensington Oval accommodating hundreds of thousands of teary-eyed in attendance. Millions watched the proceedings on television sets. The response from the crowd, a resounding ‘yes’, was enough to dispel any doubts whatsoever regarding how the crowd viewed Brian Lara: as a pure entertainer.
But as the sun set on a great career, following Lara’s team’s ignominious defeat to England in that World Cup, his retirement opened discussion on his true standing in the sport, that until his active career, had only been viewed from the lens of astonishing run-scoring.
It is a debate that to this day hasn’t been settled and might just never be.
Was Lara the best of his generation; an era that featured one glorious name after the other?
Jack Kallis. Rickey Ponting. Sachin Tendulkar.
Are those record-breaking scores- 375 versus England, 277 versus Australia and, specifically that imposing 400 not out in 2004, a mark of Lara’s genius or an indication of his desire to find himself seated amongst Cricket’s grandiose records?
But, great men, they say, aren’t judged by accomplishments alone. Rather, are measured by the respect they garner from their contemporaries.
While Ricky Ponting, to this day, brands Lara ‘selfish’, effusive praise from Sachin himself projects the Trinidadian’s differently.
You view the ‘Prince of Trinidad’ differently when Tendulkar says, “if there’s a batsman I’d pay to watch, it’s Brian”. Or when a Sangakkara, with 10 more international hundreds and some 3800 more ODI runs than the West Indian declares, “Lara is my hero. Period”.
So even while former teammate Ambrose describes Lara as the player he ‘chastised’ for possessing a condescending attitude, then feats such as being inducted into Cricket’s Hall of Fame or being dubbed as the greatest by the likes of Shoaib, Murali and Donald only polish the shine of Cricket’s equivalent of Pink Floyd’s crazy diamond.
But while he may have had his detractors, for being a one of a kind bat who could so delightfully lend an artistic flair to a voracious appetite for scoring, Lara carved a niche. An art of batting that upon his exit has hardly been seen again.
It almost seems great injustice done to legends by one of their own pupils, when Lara, who confesses about admiring Roy Fredericks, Gary Sobers and, Viv, leapt far ahead of his ‘inspirations’ not only by the measure of statistical accumulation but by virtue of admiration his love for creating big knocks earned him from around the world.
For going past Allan Border’s tally of 11000 Test runs in Border’s Australia, scoring the game’s only quadruple hundred at a very ODI kind of strike rate of 69, and for displaying shades of Michael Jackson, in his dancing down to Warne in that 1999’s thriller- that famous unbeaten 153- Lara left little doubt about his abilities as a match-winner.
But it wasn’t that only flamboyance defined him.
At a time when left-handers were generally known to lend grace to the game- Saurav, Saeed Anwar, Nick Knight- Lara emerged as an anomaly to the prevailing DNA of the 90s game. He fought fire with fire, cherished belting the likes of McGrath, Warne, Vaas, Ntini, Waqar with glee and would rush back to form with a single stroke of genius. His 116 against South Africa in 2003 World Cup’s opening game came when Lara had experienced a big lull in his career. That freak 45-ball ODI hundred against Bangladesh came like a shocker, slicing the sub-continent team into pieces.
Even as he stooped too low in his conduct to be hardly saved from the abyss of self-manufactured mediocrity- reporting late for match practices during his peak in the 1990s, bringing girls to foreign tours that prohibited allowing partners and going as far as answering a phone call whilst fielding in a county game- it seemed, all that would take Lara to wear the tag of the world’s best bat would be just one knock.
Today, where cricket is so regularly being defined by histrionics in an age of instant gratification, in Lara’s time- it was about bouncing back in the face of adversity. His 400 came at the back of running the risk of being stripped of Windies’ captaincy. His 111 in ’96 World Cup came when Windies needed to progress desperately toward the semis. His 153 at Barbados forced distraught fans to change the writing on their placards, going from ‘sack Lara’ to ‘our wounds have been healed’.
Cricket has produced stylists- Gower, Vengsarkar, Boycott- so how come Lara’s aesthetic qualities remembered the most?
His high backlift that powered a cricket bat to function like a double-edged sword. Exaggerated jumping onto the crease. Stylish follow through. Lara will most likely be remembered as the artist responsible for exceptional masterpieces.
But then, wasn’t he also a battler?