Lone wolf makes dream kill

S. RAM MAHESH

NO modern cricketer save Shane Warne has oscillated between the sublime and the ridiculous with such frequency as Brian Charles Lara. The left-hander from the Caribbean islands has often been posited as a flawed genius — as capable of stirring the soul in moments drenched with the purity of his skill as infuriating the mind during periods composed either of lethargy or recklessness.

Yet when he went past Australian left-hander Allan Border's tally of 11,174 runs at the Adelaide Oval to become Test cricket's highest run getter, no one was surprised. For all Lara's frailties and foibles, the mantle of greatness rests easy on his burdened shoulders. The thirty-six-year-old, in a career spanning 15 years, has run up a staggering list of achievements most other batting greats have not so much as approached.

In 1994, he surpassed the great Sir Garfield Sobers's record for the highest Test score of 365 not out, a number imprinted in the minds of cricket fans for 36 years. Ten years later, he reclaimed the record — the first man ever to accomplish this — after Matthew Hayden had bullied a hapless Zimbabwean attack to briefly wrest the crown. Curiously, the venue and fodder for Lara's feast didn't change: St. John's, Antigua and England respectively.

In so doing, Lara also became the first batsman to score 400 in a Test and only the second after the peerless Sir Donald Bradman to pass 300 twice. For good measure, the Trinidadian holds the record for the highest First Class score (501 not out.), an innings constructed within two months of breaking Sobers's record.

To observe Lara's batting is to comprehend exalted moments of physical expression. His method of preparation even as a bowler lets go is instructive: his wrists cock and the bat assumes a position so alarmingly high, it seems inconceivable that it will catch up when the ball is delivered; his knees flex as the weight transfers a smidgeon to his front foot after the initial back and across (During periods of uncertainty he tends to jump across. When in form, the movement is not as pronounced).

Everything is compressed into that moment, ready to be released in a blur of bat accelerating under a steady head. Like all great batsmen, he picks the length early and plays it late. But the quality that most distinguished Lara from his contemporaries — and now distinguishes him from his younger version — is his placement. Both in his 277 and 375, the ability to pick gaps stood out. As his career has progressed, the left-hander has chosen to play a few more strokes in the air.

Born on May 2, 1969, Lara's early trysts with cricket are strikingly similar to Bradman and Australian left-handed `Invincible' Neil Harvey. The former threw a golf ball against a tank stand and hit the rebound with a stump; the latter used a tennis ball. Lara made do with sticks and marbles. The Don later said he never realized he was training his eyesight and movement with his invented game.

For many observers in the West Indies, Lara's ascent to the pinnacle, ever since he played his first Test in Pakistan in 1990, was only a matter of time. When the moment came, even the stars obligingly aligned themselves: Lara scored his record-breaking run against Australia — the pre-eminent team of the era — and off Glenn McGrath, the finest fast bowler of our times. Further, he breached an Australian's mark in probably his last match in that country with a double hundred; a match, which also featured the world's leading wicket-taker, Warne.

Not since 1886-87, when England's Arthur Shrewsbury played Australia's `Demon' Fred Spofforth have the world's leading run-scorer and top wicket-taker faced off. None of this was lost on Lara: "With stuff like this you'd like to do it in front of your home crowd but it's special with Allan Border being an Australian. The reception this morning was excellent and it's really touching to be appreciated by a country I've had great battles with throughout my career."

For much of his later career, Lara carried his genius amidst mediocrity in the team. He was emperor of a disintegrating domain — a man who had lived on the cusp of a West Indian side that strode the cricketing world like none other and a team that emerged out of the oppressive shadow, enfeebled and — most times — disastrous.

It's little wonder that 13 of Lara's 31 hundreds have come in losing causes. No other player has scored as many runs in defeats as has Lara — 5040 runs in an astonishing 58 losses. Lara has enough of the lone wolf in him to take on an eleven. In 1998-99, Australia was greeted with 213, 8, 153 not out, and 100. The unbeaten innings, played under duress in Barbados with the notoriously fragile West Indian tail for company, brought the islanders a thrilling one-wicket win. The series ended 2-2, thanks to Lara.

In 2001-02, after a technical correction from Sobers (to prevent slashing across the flight of the ball), Lara piled on 688 runs in three defeats to Sri Lanka — 351 (221 and 130) of them in one match and still not enough. It seems cruel that so fine a legacy must be scripted against so depressing a backdrop. In this poignancy, perhaps, lies the great one's charm.

In an age of the sterile sporting hero, Lara has left tours, romanced super-models, and often behaved like a proud man slighted. His is a complex life and he would have it no other way. As C. L. R. James wrote, "A man of genius is what he is, he cannot be something else and remain a man of genius". In the last 60 years, some of the greatest natural geniuses in the game have come from the Caribbean islands, and every time Lara bats, fans gather around hoping he isn't the last of them.