Brian Lara, the ultimate magician

Twirling bat, impossibly high backlift, and that flourish after each shot. The expansive range that Lara's shot-making covered was an apt metaphor for the breadth of the adjectives he elicited.

Updated: August 06, 2013 16:18 IST
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"I saw myself more as an entertainer. I always loved it when people came out to watch me bat." That was Brian Charles Lara, settling once and for all the debate on whether he was more batsman or entertainer.

Twirling bat, impossibly high backlift, and that flourish after each shot. The expansive range that Lara's shot-making covered was an apt metaphor for the breadth of the adjectives he elicited. In the modern era, no man more than he could summon sighs of frustration from his fans. And conversely, no man more than he could turn those into sighs of wonder in the next instant, next match, next series.

So, why speak of Lara and his batting at this particular juncture? The correct answer, is quite simply, that there's never a bad time to do that. The corollary that demands a connection to the here-and-now is that over several lunch breaks in the ongoing Ashes, there have been snatches of Lara's dazzling batting showcased on television in the shape of a documentary.

The mercurial nature of his exploits perhaps fit the 'entertainer' label best. And he did ask the crowd after his final international innings whether he had entertained them over the course of his astonishing career. Resounding cheers greeted the question - but, of course.

But only 'entertainer' would be unfair to his prodigious batting feats. In cricket's rich history, Lara has been the only man to come within breathing distance of what might be the most revered and elemental individual batting peaks. Already the record-holder for the highest individual score in a Test match and a first-class match, he almost added the highest ODI score to his name in October 1995. He eventually fell for a 121-ball 169 against Sri Lanka in Sharjah, just 20 short of Viv Richards's then world record.

For one man to even come as close as Lara did spoke of batting genius and of the fortunate privilege for those who could watch him in action. Later, of course, Lara would add many more reams of records and landmarks, but as a 25-year-old in 1994-95, there was that air of limitless possibility about him.

The tour de force performances did come, but the man who made the world dance to his tune with a wave of his bat was also the man who went through long stretches of exasperatingly ordinary form. Sometimes, he seemed detached from the game, to the point of giving the impression of not caring enough. Sometimes, he drew sidelong glances with utterances such as, "I will still beg my team to hold their heads up." This after a 5-0 rout by South Africa away. So a genius, but a flawed one?

And then he made you gasp with what was to follow. West Indies were 51 all out against Australia in Port of Spain, in Steve Waugh's first Test as captain in March 1999, immediately after the whitewash against South Africa. At the toss before the next Test in Jamaica, Lara was booed to the centre and told Waugh that this was "the last time he would have to put up with this sh*t".

Lara may have meant that in the context that he was close to breaking point. But as it panned out, he chose a different route to ensure that the boos ceased. They turned into deafening cheers instead.

He walked in with West Indies 5 for 2 in the fifth over, saw the score slide to 34 for 4, and unleashed the shortest-lived-best-innings-of-a-career there has been. The 213 Lara made ensured an easy win, but his batting made the result almost superfluous. And that took some doing, considering the pounding his team had taken in the recent past.

Reaching the century was an event itself, with Lara setting off for a risky run on 99 and the stumps flattened by a direct hit. The third umpire may have wanted to deliberate on the decision, but the spectators watching had already decided. A sizeable contingent mobbed the pitch, surrounding Lara, jostling him in their eagerness to celebrate with him, while he tried to break free.

When he completed the run for his double hundred, Lara was prepared, and he just ran straight into the dressing room, even as the second pitch invasion gathered steam.

It took him only two weeks - until the next Test, in Barbados - to consign the 213 into a footnote as one of the great innings, but not his best. The 153 not out in a successful chase of 308 was the zenith of every element coming together to produce the definitive classic. Strong opposition, steep target, fourth innings chase, and No.11 for company. Those who've seen Courtney Walsh with bat in hand - batting average of 7.5 and most ducks (43) in Test cricket history - will understand the enormity of his surviving five balls from a charged up Glenn McGrath.

Those two innings were topped up by a breath-taking 82-ball hundred in the final Test in Antigua.

When he reached 100 in Jamaica, he was ambushed. When he reached 200, he ran for cover before that could occur again. When he hit the winning boundary in Barbados, though, Lara almost carried the surging crowd with him in festive frenzy.

Each time, his batting thrilled and awed. For a man who was so rarely out of position while playing a shot, Lara doesn't have too many freeze frame memories of a dead straight bat - even when he smashed bowlers straight. His batting was more angles and flourishes, marked with delicate touch when he wanted it, dismissive power when he desired. Fine balance against the faster men, lightning footwork against spinners. A spectator's dream and a fielding captain's nightmare.

So where does he slot then? Entertainer par excellence? Batting great? Flawed genius? I'd say magician will do nicely.

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