Sunday, April 22, 2007

Joie de vivre

For cricket-followers like me, grown up watching television commentary and reading print analysis, there are certain set stereotypes of witnessing cricketers, in particular batsmen. So we have great batsmen (Sir Viv Richards), gritty batsmen (Javed Miandad), classical batsmen (Sunny Gavaskar), and then there are those whom we pay-to-watch. The part-graceful, part-disgraced, Mohd. Azharuddin is usually a hot favourite amongst my friends there.

At a fundamental level, we watch cricket (or any other sport) for entertainment. Hence, the guys who entertain us, or we will pay-to-watch, usually happen to be the favourites. Amongst batsmen, I have two clear choices, our own special VVS Laxman, and the legendary Brian Lara. Apart from the fact that both of them look so exquisite when batting, I can point quite a number of similarities - huge appetite for getting large scores, match-winning counter-attacking instinct in tough situations (especially against the Aussies), and divine handling of spin bowling. Any coincidence that these two have played the two best Test innings I have ever witnessed, at Calcutta and Barbados respectively, against a full Aussie attack, in near-impossible situations.

The Indian selection vagaries have ensured that the Laxman I knew has metamorphosed into a more flairless transplant. The crucial bit about Lara, was that in spite of losing the maximum number of Test matches in history, the art was never sacrificed at the altar of science. Hence the greatness, and joie de vivre!

For a person who grew up on Sachin Tendulkar in the 90s, Lara was an obvious candidate to follow. The first time I heard these two legends being compared was in 1994, by the then England coach Keith Fletcher, when Lara got his life-changing 375. Lara went on to establish his hegemony with a series of record-breaking scores. However, when they clashed the first time round in 1994, on the Indian soil, Sachin came out tops, and took a distinct lead over Lara for the next five years. In fact, we got the first hint of the 'moods of the genius' during that Indian tour only, when Lara struggled throughout. Yet, in the final Test at Mohali (which the Windies won to keep their clean slate in terms of Test series defeats, before succumbing to the Aussies at home later in the same season), Lara got a crucial 91. Yet, when he nicked one, the faintest of the faintest edges, on which noone bother to appeal, he walked.

Lara has been an enigma throughout. Accolades have been flowing in for him, calling him the Best Batsman of his Generation. I will possibly pump for Ponting there, but for some reason, I do not want to really like Ponting. I guess the comparison can be with Akram, a magician with the ball, but pipped to the 'best' post by a less adventurous McGrath.

Lara was a genius in the true sense of the term. I had just heard of great artists getting inspirations, Lara epitomised artistry. When he was not in form, he looked ugly, jumping into shots, feet and arms all over the place, getting hit and beaten. However, when the stars were in place, he was poetry in motion. The jumpy footwork appeared nimble, feets & arms collaborated to produce shots which you never thought existed (late cuts off fast bowlers, nataraj pull to length deliveries), and the deadliest swinging balls flashily driven anywhere into the off-side, as per wont.

Apart from the fact that Lara's game was so attractive (his exaggerated backlift always denoted that he is looking to play an attacking stroke, a delivery was stopped in defense only as a last resort, as if His Highness had decided to spare it), the exhilarating bit came from what he did with that style. I saw the legendary knock at Barbados throughout (in the middle of a crucial examination), the awesome fact was not what he did, but how he did it. Mind you, McGrath was at his very best, both with the ball and his mouth (he picked up 5 wickets), yet Lara kept attacking. In that crucial partnership with Ambrose, Warne operated with a field which had nine fielders on the boundary, yet Lara's placement was so precise that it continuously pierced them all, shielding the big Curtley from the wily Warne. This very treatment ensured that for the first and the last time in his career, then vice-captain Warney was dropped from the next deciding Test.

Brian Lara had a sporadic 90s, oscillating between peaks and troughs, brushes with establishment, openly coveting captaincy and hence not giving his full support to Walsh (his record under him is almost pedestrian), and apparently, flirting with bookies (The Cheat who Walks). When his captaincy was under pressure before that legendary Frank Worrell Trophy on 1999, he single-handedly ensured a draw. Yet, after a whitewash in South Africa the subsequent season, he resigned from the captaincy, stung by "moderate success and devastating failures".

In the new century, Lara threw caution-to-the-winds. As West Indian cricket touched new nadirs, and he fast sprinted towards his infamous Test-losing record, he found new masterpieces to carve. He was never consistent, yet rattled off huge tons and doubles. Against Murali in Sri Lanka, at home against the Proteas (just after being relieved of the captaincy again), reclaiming the highest Test score (and breaching the 400 barrier), simply kept the adrenaline pumping. For me, a quick 40, off 40 deliveries, which he got in the first innings against the Aussies at Antigua (the Test where the record 416 was chased down in the second innings), epitomised it all. That 40 was as exciting as anything I have ever seen on a cricket field (a close similie was Sachin's near-abouts, again against the Aussies, in the ICC Champions' Trophy at Nairobi in 2000). First Lara went eye-to-eye with his counterpart Steve Waugh fielding at covers (somehow, an eye-to-eye from under the helmet, glaring into tiny eyes, further narrowed and hidden under shades, looks extremely unevenly-matched), then taunted the then-quick Gillespie when he bowled a bouncer, and had the audacity to late-cut the next delivery, a perfectly pitched good-length ball.

The baffling element of his career was Lara's legacy as captain. Some of his decisions - inserting oppositions on perfectly good pitches (and with his bowling attacks), team-selection, enforcing follow-ons - ranged from strange to ridiculous. He was apparently a disruptive influence on the team, as Darren Ganga claimed, and players like Sarwan & Gayle seconded by under-performing massively when he got his usual big one. Yet, he gave up his second stint of captaincy only because the board dropped his fellow-players due to some endorsement conflicts. He decided to sink with his team-mates, even though they often refused to swim with him.

The end for Lara was swift and brutal. He had already decided to retire from ODI cricket after the World Cup, but wanted to continue patronising his favoured Test version (maybe a hint for Sachin there). However, Greenidge and Roberts had some other plans, and instead of risking the humiliation of getting dropped, he decided to go on his own terms.

Lara's farewell International game was at Barbados, the venue of his most famous Test innings. It was his announcement which ensured a dead match at the World Cup saw its largest turnout. And his end followed the same pattern as his career, done in by one of his own. As he asked the crowds at the finish, 'Did I entertain you?', there is one resounding Aye from this part of the world.

So long, Brian, and thanks for all the joy! Hope to see you in the Indian Cricket League.

1 comment:

Abhilasha said...

Very beautifully penned, sheer magic...But why would you not love him, I know for sure that you do