A great entertainer

One of the most enigmatic characters in world cricket, Brian Charles Lara's batting was intriguing, and at times obtrusive too. His style was unique, and he was a master of all conditions and a reliable match-winner, writes Vijay Lokapally.

He was the best against the best, unpretentious and a pure joy to watch. Brian Charles Lara was a master at the crease; a batsman with qualities that placed him among the all-time greats of the game.

If ever there was a batsman after Don Bradman and Viv Richards who terrorised the bowlers, it was Lara. He wielded such a destructive bat that left the opposition wounded and demoralised. Such was his dominance that he could propel a contest on an electrifying course with ridiculous ease. He could rattle an in-form bowler and demoralise him.

"I want to be remembered as an entertainer," Lara said while announcing his retirement at Bridgetown.

An entertainer Lara certainly was. He was a player who had no fear of failure. The most significant feature of his batting was that he never allowed the occasion to dominate him. He had his own set of rules.

The signs of greatness were evident early in Lara's career when he made his first class debut for Trinidad and Tobago against Barbados, falling eight runs short of a century against an attack that included Malcolm Marshall and Joel Garner. It marked the beginning of a journey that put him alongside some of the most exciting batsmen in the game.

One of the most enigmatic characters in world cricket, Lara's batting was intriguing, and at times obtrusive too. His style was unique, and he was a master of all conditions and a reliable match-winner.

His monumental run-making was always interesting to watch and his spirit to excel was the lone bright spot in the West Indies cricket for the past so many years.

Most critics acknowledge Lara's mastery while playing on bad pitches. It is a reflection of his batting skills that bowlers always dreaded the sight of him even when they managed to extract the maximum advantage from the pitch. Even on wickets where the other batsmen struggled, Lara would middle the ball with ease. That was one reason why his batting brought endless joy to the spectators around the world.

Sachin Tendulkar always marvelled at Lara's capacity to make big scores. In his childhood, the Indian maestro loved playing for a weak side in neighbourhood matches because it put extra pressure on him to perform. "It was always a joy to do well against a stronger opposition," Tendulkar would say. It was similar in Lara's case as he was forced to play for a weak side, not in neighbourhood matches but at the highest level in international cricket.

As Ian Chappell recently pointed out, playing for a weak team was tough for Lara because he was often fighting a losing battle. It was unfortunate that even after scoring 600 runs Lara ended up on the losing side in a three-Test series in Sri Lanka as the host prepared treacherous pitches to help its off-spinner Muttiah Muralitharan. Very few batsmen have fared so brilliantly in the most adverse conditions as Lara took his batting skills to great heights.

History has witnessed many batsmen with fascinating skills dominating the game, but few can match Lara's aggression and confidence. At times he might have come off as an arrogant man at the crease but then he always backed himself to perform, and he rarely failed. It was a delight to see him dancing down the pitch to the spinners. It was so audacious and effective as he made the last-second adjustments to despatch the ball over extra cover or mid-on. It was also breathtaking to watch Lara pick the ball literally out of the wicketkeeper's gloves to unleash a late cut. Often he would daringly whip across the line, the bowler jumping in anticipation only to watch the ball being deftly caressed to its destination. He was a master of timing.

In the words of Ian Chappell, Lara shall remain the greatest under-achiever too. The fact was endorsed by the great Viv Richards too. "He did not realise his potential," he wrote, and rightly so. Lara played to entertain, not to accumulate runs for individual honours. He was the Mozart of batting, creating symphonies as he elevated the art of batting to a new high. Lara did not believe in brutal annihilation of the bowling. He had his own way of dominating the contest and it was simply amazing that he could do it single-handedly. To have scored 277 in only his fifth Test match and a world record 375 in only his 16th is a testimony to his greatness. The same year he also scored that mind-blowing 501 not out against Durham. Though he lost the world record to Australia's Matthew Hayden, he regained the mark in his 106th Test, slamming 400 not out against England.

A look at his list of 350 plus scores reveals the significance of Lara's knocks. They came against better bowling attacks, especially the 400 not out which the West Indian scored during England's resurgence as a cricketing nation.

The best part of Lara's batting was the purity that marked his strokeplay. He drove nonchalantly, pulled imperiously and cut delicately. And his defence was very compact. He truly personified attractive batsmanship.

Glenn McGrath, Anil Kumble, Shane Warne, Muttiah Muralitharan, Allan Donald... the list of bowlers who valued Lara's scalp the most is very long. The mighty West Indian knew how to decimate attacks. Sadly, captaincy was one aspect that Lara failed to grasp. He was often accused of being aloof, self-centred and very demanding as a captain, but it was also true that Lara found it increasingly difficult to come to terms with the administrators on various issues. However, he never let his colleagues down, standing by them in the most exacting situations. He may have been unpopular with some of his team-mates but then a genius would always want to have his way.

One should also realise that it was just not easy for Lara to keep going when after having done so much for his team he got little support from his team-mates.

Lara, after all, was a batsman who had to be taught little during his career. To make others understand the gravity of the situation and to help them tune their skills would not have been easy and he probably gave up trying to do so somewhere down the line before one final effort towards the fag end of his glorious career. Lara was confident that his side was good enough to make the semifinals of the World Cup at home, but West Indies' disappointing show was too much to take for the great sportsman. In fact, earlier he had announced that he would be retiring from ODIs after the World Cup, but soon followed it up with his decision to quit Test cricket too. It definitely is not the best way to end a glittering career.

If Lara was a part of the decline of West Indies cricket, it was his misfortune. Again at the cost of being repetitive, one would like to remember Ian Chappell, who said in defence of Lara, "The West Indies would still have lost as many matches even if Viv (Richards) would have been in the team." The bowlers under Lara were no way in the class of the bowlers who played under Clive Lloyd and Richards.

True, Lara was an under-achiever, but we would love to remember him as a batsman who was the best against the best.