Paeans to a genius

Brian Lara, without doubt, enjoys an exalted status in world cricket. Some of the Indian cricketers, who played against him, doff their hats to the great West Indian, who recently announced his retirement. By Vijay Lokapally.

Brian Lara was known to `walk'. He earned the respect of the umpires for his sportsmanship. He made the umpires' job easy, if not the bowlers', by not waiting for the decision.

Former India wicketkeeper Nayan Mongia was prime witness to Lara's such act of sportsmanship at Mohali in 1994. "He tried to cut the ball and there was a faint nick. I appealed," recalled Mongia. Even the bowler, left-arm spinner Venkatapathy Raju, was unsure and joined the appeal late. And even before umpire S. Venkatraghavan raised his finger, Lara, nine runs short of his century, was already on his way to the pavilion. The act evoked a standing ovation from Courtney Walsh, who was sitting outside the boundary at third man.

"He was fantastic. A big match player and could score at will. He never looked shaky. Once he was set, there was little work for the wicketkeeper because the ball would just not pass his bat. Even today he looks better than the rest and could have continued to play Test cricket. I feel sorry for him because he scored in tons but the bowlers let him down," Mongia said in praise of Lara.

Mongia cherishes the evening when his wife was cooking rice and rajma in their room at Antigua in 1997 and Lara, attracted by the aroma, walked in with a bottle of wine. "It was a wonderful evening, spending quality time with Lara off the crease," Mongia recalled with pride.

Raju dismissed Lara four times in six Test innings during the 1994 series. "I will cherish those four dismissals. I first saw him in 1988 in the Youth World Cup. He was no different then, playing a shot off the first ball. He was the same in 1994, but a lot matured and much acclaimed. He was a great batsman, could hit any ball, a great advertisement for the game and an asset to world cricket. His footwork was brilliant and he could murder spinners even on helpful pitches. I have not seen a batsman more dominating. I met him recently after 13 years and found him as warm and friendly as ever," recollected Raju.

For Rahul Dravid, a gesture by Lara remains one of his priceless possessions. The West Indian presented the Indian with a bat following Dravid's sterling match-winning knocks (81 and 68) in the 2006 Jamaica Test. "The bat (with a message) is prominently displayed in my drawing room. I also cherish the comments he made about my two innings. Coming from someone like Lara, they mean a lot," said Dravid.

The Indian captain described Lara as a "legend". "He will be remembered for entertaining the people. Personally, watching him was one of the special joys of the game. He was one of the greatest batsmen of my generation. He did not play for the best team but still produced memorable performances and never let his own standards drop. I met him first in 1996 and always found him very friendly. Sharing the dressing room with him (World Series match in Melbourne) was an honour."

For Anil Kumble too it was an honour, but of a different kind. "Taking his wicket was so special. He is the best I've ever bowled to. He played the ball so late on either side. He would sweep so fine and the short fine leg would have no chance. He really had three to four shots for every ball, very tough to contain when on song. He was brilliant against spin. Muralitharan told me that he had not seen anyone dominate the spinners as Lara. This man could adapt. He may have had his reasons to retire but I think he could have easily played a few more years. He was a great cricketer and a friendly man."

Kumble had an anecdote to share. "In the tsunami relief match at Melbourne, I was bowling to him. It was not a serious match. I saw him step out and checked my length. I thought I had beaten him in the air. Any other batsman would have holed out to long on or long off. What did Lara do? He sat on it and swept it for four. Unbelievable."

Lara has a silent admirer in Venkatesh Prasad, who dismissed the West Indian twice in the Barbados Test in 1997. "He was a truly great batsman. He had plenty of shots, two for every ball, and could adjust quickly. I enjoyed bowling to him and watching him and always cherish the times I got him. He showed the same emotion whether he made 10 or 100. It was an honour to have bowled to him."

For V. V. S. Laxman, it was a "joy" to watch Lara. "He set high standards for all batsmen. He was definitely a genius. On song, he showed what mastery of batting meant. He was amazing because he could get runs even on bad pitches. His appetite to score was mind-blowing. I liked him because he could win matches single-handedly. He was a great host. I was among the few who were invited to his house on our last tour and we learnt how friendly he was."

Kapil Dev did not bowl much to Lara but would have loved the challenge. "He didn't have the best team to play for but he was the best. He was a one-man army. I am amazed at how he could bat so freely when under pressure and with tremendous responsibility. He had the right attitude to entertain and dominate. A batsman who can regain a world record by making 400 has to be special and worth emulating."

Javagal Srinath agreed. "Lara was a phenomenon. I silently admired him as a bowler, fielder and a spectator. It was a pleasure to see him score. He was a great player with great shots. He captivated the cricketing fraternity and became synonymous with West Indies cricket. Such was his reputation that most of our team discussions would centre on him. He left little room for errors and irrespective of the pitch and conditions could take the fight to the opposition. I will remember him as a very friendly person and fiercely competitive cricketer."

The man who knew him best was Robin Singh. He spent a lot of time with Lara in Trinidad and came to admire him very much. "He was a thorough gentleman and was a rare opponent you could sit back and enjoy. You could learn so much by just watching him. He was easily the greatest batsman of our generation and carried the burden of his team with lot of flourish and class. There was something about the way he played his cricket. He could score at will. I remember Muralitharan telling me how Lara would hit the ball precisely past the spot from where he would have moved the fielder. Amazing. We got along very well. He never forgot to call whenever he was in town. Lara was a fabulous person and could have carried on for a few more years. But that's his call."