Building a case for Lara

Brian Lara captivated my imagination from the start. I had heard a mention of his name before I went to the Caribbean for the 1990 England tour. When I saw Lara bat in a warm-up match I knew none of the stories had been exaggerated, writes Ted Corbett.

Given a choice between Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar, who would pick any favourite other than Lara?

By the time I met the pair — separately around about the start of the 1990s — I had seen all the great batsmen whose careers began from the end of the Second World War. I missed Don Bradman and Wally Hammond; my school lessons were Test cricket until the early 1950s.

Do I feel deprived? I think not. I have discussed Hammond with plenty of people who knew him, including my mother, a close friend of his wife; and there is no one in cricket who does not have an opinion about The Don. Besides, the figures of both these giants speak louder than words.

I might have been a more rounded writer if I had crossed their paths, although Bradman wrote to me about my namesake Claud Corbett his ghost in the Bodyline series. I am no wiser. Bradman who knew a lot could add nothing to suggestions Claud and I are related.

Afterwards from Len Hutton, Denis Compton, Peter May and Colin Cowdrey; to Tom Graveney and Garfield Sobers, through Neil Harvey, Sunil Gavaskar, the Chappells, the Waughs, Viv Richards and too many others to mention lest they fill the 1200 words given to me for this article, I have seen all the elite batsmen.

So I believe I have a sound basis for judgement.

Lara captivated my imagination from the start. I had heard a mention of his name before I went to the Caribbean for the 1990 England tour. It is more than can be said about the executive on a paper famous for its cricket coverage. “Who is this Brian Lara?” he asked, probably for the last time.

When I saw Lara bat in a warm-up match I knew none of the stories had been exaggerated.

Afterwards we ran into one another at the airport. One of his pals thought it was worth his while to chat to my partner Joanne King; I thought interviewing Lara more profitable. He was reading my account of that match which concentrated largely on his future.

“You have no objection to what I have said?” I asked since he was frowning. “No. This is an international magazine and I need publicity round the world,” he said.

Since there have been similar discussions in every West Indies island while he recounted the hold-up at gun point, how his backlift — perhaps the highest in modern batting — never gave him a moment's concern and in some depth his views on the 21st century game, his own place within it and why West Indies had gone from bad to worse.

My meetings with Tendulkar have been cooler. I was fascinated to see traditional East meet conservative West when he joined Yorkshire. He was still only 19 and reserved to the point of shyness.

One interview yielded me very little but I cannot regret the journey to see him because by the end of that evening I knew that he had much to conquer if he was to lead Yorkshire back to the top.

Ideally he should have gone to another county. Yorkshiremen have fixed ideas, particularly about cricket. “I thought he would dominate our dressing room,” said one veteran, showing that hidebound Yorkshire could not cope with an Indian lad of 19.

Today, 49 Test centuries on, Tendulkar might be a different man, able to lead, to remonstrate with the slackers and to encourage the laggards. As a teenager the county should not have expected him to dominate anything.

He failed to make a century that summer — although the crowds willed him on every time he got near — and left with only a few memories although the team got closer to their sub-continental neighbours through the curry houses where he was a welcome guest. Later, Indians and Pakistanis who were beginning to show their wares in the leagues, found the signpost to Headingley.

Indirectly, Tendulkar begat Adil Rashid and Ajmal Shahzad and one day they will be glad he was their overseas star for half a season.

If the pair become regular England players as well as county stars there will be more reason to be grateful to Tendulkar but we leap ahead at this point.

About the same time Lara was on his way to all sorts of world records, showing style and grace, lightning footwork, ferocious power and stamina for long innings.

One of his greatnesses was that he would take on the finest. There was something extra special about his treatment of Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, Allan Donald and Muttiah Muralitharan. When he made his 375 — on a slow pitch at St. Johns, Antigua — I thought it the finest of all the world records, partly because everyone of the England attack went on to gross around 100 Test wickets.

Chris Lewis, Angus Fraser, Andrew Caddick and Phil Tufnell; these are not lambs to the Lara slaughter; all of them won Tests for England; all of them were full-blown cricketers; not one of them bowled really badly on those three days of torment.

Lara has always made batting look easy yet he has had the technique to graft for long periods; contrast him with Kevin Pietersen who seems in too much of a hurry, too desperate to reach a landmark score, too keen even to get his first run.

Lara, a small man, had all the backfoot shots, like the hook that took the record Test score from Sobers. His leg glance was as silky and hit almost as fine as the Richards stroke, but the majestic touch came when he smashed his way through the covers where the giants demonstrate their right to a place on the pantheon. Now his time is done after 16 years. Lara can relax in the grand hilltop house that came with his records from a grateful Trinidad government or in the pub where he and his pals have always gathered at the end of play.

His retirement gives me the chance to think again about my long devotion to his place at the top of the tree and to wonder if I should switch equal dedication to his main rival.

After all Lara did not score as many Test centuries, did not show the stamina which is now standing Tendulkar in such good stead and perhaps ought to lose a point or two for those many West Indies defeats.

No, it is not yet time to ditch a belief I have held so long. But the longer I watch, the more my admiration for Tendulkar grows and one day, who knows, I might be tempted to call him the greatest.

Give or take Don Bradman, of course.