Back to their menacing best

REUTERS

It isn't certain at this stage whether the legends, Tiger Woods and Lara, have done enough to earn the deliverance they both desperately seek; nevertheless they have done much to salvage their wounded pride, writes VIJAY PARTHASARATHY.

TWO men in the quest for redemption took disparate routes yet arrived at the same destination last fortnight. But while one drew up in style, the other appeared a little distraught; his mind a swirl of emotions, and labouring under the strain, as he approached the home stretch.

With a name straight out of Arthurian legend, it seems inconceivable that Brian Charles Lara could ever fall short on courage; and he proved upon his return to the Test side that his saga, given time, can only morph into myth. As wickets fell at the other end in the first Test against South Africa Lara calmly proceeded to hammer 196 of the best; and although this won't rank among his greatest knocks ever, it did approach perfection at several points.

Perfection made an encore appearance on the 16th at Augusta National three days later; not as a fluky hole-in-one, but in the form of a magnificent chipped-in birdie up the slope. The ball rolled down a treacherous ridge towards the cup 35 feet away, dipped slightly to the right before correcting its path; then for two seconds clung stubbornly to the lip like an insignificant speckle defying the might of a black hole, before acquiescing. From there onwards Eldrick `Tiger' Woods lapsed briefly into approximation; mediocrity even (and consequently, bogeys), before finally ending his two-and-a-half year drought to win his fourth Masters and ninth major.

It isn't certain at this stage whether the legends have done enough to earn the deliverance they both desperately seek; nevertheless they have done much to salvage their wounded pride.

LARA is, at once, both Hamlet and prince among goatherds; the moody genius has made a career out of milking bowling attacks to the last drop — but elegantly, mind you — and compiled three record-breaking knocks during the course of his first-class career.

Here's a telling statistic. In the first twelve years of his career Lara scored 18 centuries, including the magnificent 277 against Australia (his first century) and the then world record score of 375 against England at St. John's, Antigua; in the past three alone he has scored nine. Among the nine, two were scores above 200; another two were in the 190s. The crowning moment of course came like a blast from the past, when he regained the Test record for the highest score last year with the unbeaten 400, against England — once again at St. John's.

The 35-year-old has aged gracefully — but only at least as far as his cricket is concerned. To some extent his personal reputation has been tarnished by a series of recent altercations with the West Indies Cricket Board over wage payment and personal contract issues; and the Trinidadian has always had the reputation of being emotionally effervescent and, as a direct result, difficult to deal with.

His footwork has slowed down, if only imperceptibly, and these days he seems to favour playing a little more off the backfoot; albeit with the same, awe-inspiring power. He is approaching the end of a rollercoaster career and very likely has climbed his final peak as a batsman. The 196 last fortnight nudged him ahead of Gary Sobers's West Indian record of 26 centuries; and while he might not qualify outright as the greatest batsman ever he certainly would, as the most electrifying shotmaker the world has ever seen.

In comparison it's a lot more difficult to measure Woods's standing in his sport. The American won his first Masters at 21 by a staggering margin of 12 strokes; three years later, in 2000, he became the youngest player ever to complete the career Grand Slam, after winning the other three majors — the PGA Championship, the British Open and the US Open — one after the other. And soon after that, Woods became the first ever golfer to hold all four majors simultaneously when he won the Masters once more in April 2001.

All of a sudden, it looked pretty good, and all of a sudden it looked like really good, and it looked like how could it not go in, and how did it not go in, and all of a sudden it went in. So, it was pretty sweet - Tiger Woods.-TOM SHAW/GETTY IMAGES

Already his position as one of the greatest golfers seemed assured; with eight majors at that point he looked like he might overhaul the great Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 in double-quick time.

Then the slump hit him with the force of a misfiring golf club. For more than two years Woods pottered about from course to course looking more and more like a physical impersonation of the erstwhile champion. When he won last fortnight, Woods, who is rarely known to display extreme emotion in public, broke down and dedicated his topsy-turvy win after the play-off to his father, a heart and cancer patient.

IN truth, Woods was simply experiencing his first prolonged bout of hiccups — something Lara has experienced over and over again — but since we had by then come to judge him by extraordinary standards, we attached greater import to his slump.

At 29, Woods isn't exactly young by modern standards of professional sport; on the other hand golf is not regarded for nothing as a sport for sprightly geriatrics. But the work ethic in golf has considerably changed since the days of Jack Nicklaus. Experts believe the tremendous power Woods imparts to his swing could eventually damage his back; and at any rate in the era of professional sport, careers rarely last beyond 40. Woods switched coaches (from longtime mentor Butch Harmon to the lesser known Hank Haney), and proceeded to switch swings — from an almost vertical stroke to a flatter on-plane knock delivered to the ball. He still hits the ball as hard, but without so much stress.

In hindsight it's easier to attribute Woods's struggle to poach a major to a mid-life crisis; but many pro-golfers believe he might never dominate his sport as he once did. For nearly two years, when he completely subjugated a strong field of professional golfers, the American was viewed as a boring champion; more android than human. He seemed equally allergic to controversy and open displays of emotion.

He seemed incredibly strong, mentally.

In cricket the basic trick is, of course, to keep the ball from crashing into the stumps — and, if possible, avoid permanent rearrangement of the jawline — and success, broadly speaking, ultimately depends on how long a batsman can stave off the occurrence of both. Naturally cricketers need to possess tremendous strength of character; something which Lara has often displayed on the field but, at times, bafflingly failed to do so off it.

To maintain consistency in golf similarly takes more than just skill or prodigious talent. But the yardsticks employed to measure greatness in this case are different. In tournament play the golfer competes against someone, yes, but more importantly he is playing against himself (and against nature, to an extent). The challenge therefore lies as much in bettering an opponent's drive or putt as it does in constantly extending intensely personal notions of perfection. It's ultimately a matter of mental wherewithal, a bit like playing chess against oneself.

The disintegration of Woods's game over the past couple of years (if one might call it that, relatively speaking, although it's far too dramatic a description of the truth) suggests that bullets are beginning to make a dent in Superman's frame, and if they aren't quite hurting him yet, life sure is getting uncomfortable.

STILL, flawed as they are, men like Lara and Woods are geniuses not because they let us know they are striving for perfection; but because they actually manage to get there occasionally.

And because, once in a while, they get there, in audacious fashion, without really trying.

"I was just trying to throw the ball up there on the hill and let it feed down there and hopefully have a makable putt," Woods was to say later, of his magical birdie. "All of a sudden, it looked pretty good, and all of a sudden it looked like really good, and it looked like how could it not go in, and how did it not go in, and all of a sudden it went in.

"So, it was pretty sweet."