The aura of LARA

That Lara continues to command respect from the opposition even when lying low speaks for the West Indian star's stature in world cricket, writes VIJAY LOKAPALLY

IN the Caribbean, they liken Brian Lara's cricket to the heady excitement that comes from the rum punch — a mix of alcohol and fruit juice. The effect, from watching Lara bat or enjoying a rum punch on the beach, is equally intoxicating. There is, however, a distinguished tribe that does not share our joy. The tribe of bowlers, fast and slow, pulverised over the years by the punishing blade of Lara.

The graceful and left-handed West Indian, pint-sized, like other greats Don Bradman, Sunil Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar, and accomplished in his field as few in the history of the game, stands tall amongst contemporary cricketers. Now, in the twilight of his career, striving for motivation, Lara finds accolades coming his way from an unexpected quarter — the tribe he has so authoritatively dominated from the time he played that astonishing knock of 277 at Sydney in 1993. It was his first Test century in only his fifth match, an ominous sign of similar acts to come.

Cricketers in Australia have voted Lara `The most dangerous' bat ahead of proven masters like Sachin Tendulkar and Sanath Jayasuriya, not to forget V. V. S. Laxman. That Lara continues to command respect from the opposition even when lying low speaks for the West Indian star's stature in world cricket. His record against Australia, 2,511 runs in 28 Tests at an average of 50.22 with eight centuries, including two double hundreds, also places Lara high in the list.

A picture of poise at the crease, Lara presents the positive side of batsmanship even in times of duress. Not the one to be pushed into a corner by pace and bounce, he has revelled in dominating bowlers with an aura of arrogance that also marks his game. With the high back-lift, eyes glowing and in a flashing moment capturing the field placements, ready to decimate the bowler, Lara can be an intimidating sight for the opposition. He plays hard, without trespassing the spirit of the game, very competitive, but equally sporting. You can trust him to walk even at 99!

But Lara, for all his conquests on the cricket fields, has remained an enigma. His batting — gifted, alluring, aesthetic — has a classic aura about it but, at times, streaks of complacency and casualness have, at different stages, cast a question mark on his commitment to the team. Often it comes from putting pressure on himself and Viv Richards, the most destructive batsmen ever, acknowledges it in his autobiography when he says, "He can look a bit inferior and maybe even casual but there is no doubting his ability. If you are able to prepare yourself quickly enough and make quick decisions, these are the solutions for reacting to a quick delivery. Even great batsmen like Lara or Tendulkar are sometimes out through not thinking quickly enough and that has nothing to do with technique."

"God's gift to cricket," was how Tendulkar had once famously described Lara. "He can be so destructive even when the bowling is good," the Indian great put things in perspective. Lara can be devastating with the bat even when conditions favour the bowlers. Not many batsmen can claim to be comfortable on pitches conducive to bowlers but Lara has remained an exception on various counts. The surface does not matter, for Lara is known to `kill' the ball with his ability to spot the line and length with ample time at his disposal.

For Wasim Akram, the attacking West Indian batsman can be "a law unto himself, difficult to bowl to once he begins to time the ball." There are some bowlers who believe that Lara could be snared by challenging his desire to dictate from the first ball, but often they have ended up in grief, their reputation and confidence in tatters.

We have seen the heights Lara can reach with his batting exploits. His 375 against England to break Garry Sobers's record was hailed as an epic and had come a mere 15 months after that sensational performance at Sydney. That stupendous run saw Lara compile seven centuries in eight first class innings, beginning with that 375 and ending with the first class individual record of 501 not out for Warwickshire against Durham.

The legendary Richie Benaud, in his My Spin On Cricket, has this to say: `It (the 277) was one of the best innings I've ever seen and I was unlucky not to be there to see him break Garry Sobers's record against England. Both innings were played as part of drawn matches and I know, through having been there, that the one in Sydney was on a beautiful batting pitch. I assume the one at St. John's was of similar quality. Certainly that was the case when I watched him in St. John's in 2004 when, in scoring 400 not out, he broke Matthew Hayden's 380-run record." Benaud also rates Lara an "outstanding player of spin bowling" with his brilliant footwork and great judgement of length standing out.

But Lara has remained an enigma. A great performer, a batsman with an astonishing range of strokes and the ability to put the bowlers in their place, but a very ordinary leader despite West Indies winning the 2004 Champions Trophy in England. By getting involved in a pay dispute with the WICB, he hardly enhanced his reputation. He was dropped, only to return later to slam two majestic centuries against the visiting South Africans. He boosted his image as a batsman but lost the captaincy.

Lara, according to experts in the Caribbean, was seen as a poor communicator, a captain too aloof, a team-mate too selfish, and generally unpopular with most of his compatriots. Richards had strong views on Lara's captaincy and his reputation as a role model for the young generation in the Caribbean. Lara, the great destroyer of attacks, was never comfortable as captain.

His frequent brushes with the administration had a negative impact on his cricket. He missed team meetings, practice sessions, sometimes flights too. He once reportedly carried a mobile on to the field. Consequently he fell from grace, inviting scathing criticism from many former West Indian greats, including Richards and Clive Lloyd.

Lara's batting has remained one of the lasting joys in cricket. Bowlers know they cannot give Lara any room, for he can pounce on the smallest of openings. The ease with which he gets into position to execute a stroke is a fascinating experience, even for those who happen to be at the receiving end. "You have to be at your best always against Lara and that is one reason why it is a huge satisfaction to get his scalp," noted Anil Kumble, who has enjoyed his numerous duels with Lara.

In his 15-year-old international career, Lara has scripted some amazing assaults on the bowlers. How often do you see a batsman cut or pull the first ball on arriving at the crease? Lara can be trusted to dismiss a bad ball with contempt regardless of the time he would have spent in the middle. And once he settles down, his dainty footwork in place, and timing blessed with a divine touch, even the best of deliveries can be summarily buried under the avalanche of Lara's breathtaking stroke-play.

In Port of Spain, his villa atop a hill is a landmark the natives are as proud of as this illustrious son of soil. Rising from a humble background in Cantaro Village in Santa Cruz, Lara, 10th in a family of 11 children, made waves as a precocious 14-year-old while still studying at Fatima College. He quickly grew in stature as an entertainer of pristine quality.

Steve Waugh, the thorough professional, was on the losing side when Lara rose to craft a match-winning 153 at Kensington Oval in 1999. "Lara is a good player against average bowling sides and a great one against formidable attacks but when harassed into a corner by his own brinksmanship or if he's targeted, he elevates himself into a genius." Coming from Waugh, this statement aptly portrays a picture closest to the character that Lara epitomises in world cricket.

Lara, 36, faces the test of his career during West Indies's current tour of Australia. The responsibility of lifting a fading team from the depths of despair lies on his shoulders and Lara, the fascinating artist from Trinidad and Tobago, can be expected to inspire the resurgence of West Indies cricket.

As his fans back home believe, he owes it to the Caribbean islands in particular, and world cricket in general. Rum punch can wait, but not the heady mix that Lara generates with his intoxicating batting.