A new frontier of excellence

"IN a game (in which) batsmen define its entertainment value, Lara has had few parallels, if any, and like most of the great ones he has the uncanny ability to summon the genie of his genius out of the lamp just when the times seem to be the darkest."

"IN a game (in which) batsmen define its entertainment value, Lara has had few parallels, if any, and like most of the great ones he has the uncanny ability to summon the genie of his genius out of the lamp just when the times seem to be the darkest." This editorial tribute in the Trinidad and Tobago Express conveys in its essence the magnum opus that the compactly built West Indian scripted to add one more shining page to the history of cricket at St. John's (Antigua) recently.

To dismiss the effort as one expected from a gifted batsman that Brian Lara undoubtedly is, is no acknowledgement at all; on the contrary, it must be recognised as an innings that has changed the character of cricket, nay, the whole realm of batsmanship that the immortals like Grace and Bradman so brilliantly personified.

"I sort of had the expectation that he was going to break the record. He really had it in his sights," remarked Matthew Hayden, who had conquered Lara's nine-year-old 375 milestone against Zimbabwe last year. "Honestly, I never thought he would do it again. He is a great player, but at the age of 34 and with so much responsibility on his shoulders, with the team not doing well, I really did not see him breaking the world record," confessed his compatriot, Mike Holding.

The contrasting views only confirm what an enigma Brian Charles Lara has been since he came on the scene in 1990. From then on, Lara has fascinated connoisseurs to chroniclers alike. The pattern of his scores suggests he is an accumulator. And what else can he be seen as with two knocks of over 300 to go on par with the great Don, and a 277 against Australia at Sydney in 1993 being his first three figure innings in Tests. He also has the first class world record with a score of 501 not out for Warwickshire in English County league.

To portray Lara as a grafter in the calibre of, Hanif Mohammad, Bob Cowper and Bobby Simpson, to name a few in the 300-plus club, will be churlish. Lara's batting is a masterly symphony of style and system, an ethos that mirrors the typical bravura of the West Indian approach and artistry. His lazy elegance at the crease clearly enhances the charm and craft of every stroke that flows from his bat. He annihilates bowlers with the clinical precision of a surgeon.

Lara conquered the record of 365 not out set by his illustrious predecessor, Sir Garfield Sobers, after almost a generation had rolled by. But within a space of nine years, he lost the honour, albeit briefly, to the Aussie, Matthew Hayden; but regained the crown, reaching a new frontier of excellence with a whopping 400 runs in a Test innings. Clearly, he had raised the bar to a different height, making the target almost like a mirage for many in the next generation. What the two knocks between 1995 and 2004 underscore is the astonishing degree of resilience of a man haunted by the vagaries of life and its travails.

Life for Lara has never been as smooth as his stroke execution. In fact, lesser mortals would have quit the scene in disgust and frustration from the trials and tribulations he had to confront. A mysterious ailment raised several embarrassing and disturbing questions about his personal life, and kept him out of the sport for about a year. His frequent brushes with the officialdom and also with the team's physio almost ruined a brilliant career.

The expectations were high, the demands unrelenting. But Lara, notwithstanding his genius, had to accept the reality of the declining strength of West Indies as a cricketing entity. The talent surrounding this master craftsman was abysmally poor compared to what predecessors like Clive Lloyd and Vivian Richards enjoyed under their command. His form before this monumental effort for the second time at the same venue in Antigua was anemic. But this one innings lifted the whole aspect of contemporary cricket into a new wave of incandescence.

Coming as this immortal innings does after England had clinched the eventful series, sceptics will tend to conclude it as a personal triumph for Lara and nothing more. But when studied from another standpoint, this knock will definitely help drive away the gloom surrounding cricket in the Caribbean and contribute immensely towards a healthy regeneration. The proficiency of Chanderpaul, Ramnaresh Sarwan, Ricardo Powell and Ridley Jacobs, cannot be totally underestimated. Lara's symphony can well inspire these men into forging West Indies as a major force again.

Sport, and competitive sport at that, after all, wades through a transition everywhere, and cricket, surging through a crisis of confidence now in the West Indies is not an aberration. Performances like the one that Lara had come out with have the power to alter the course of history. Both as captain and as a performer, Lara had to prove himself. And the first ever 400-run innings has established Lara as a living cricketing legend.