How often have we seen cricket fanatics on the street breaking into random run-ups out of nowhere or playing the imaginary pull-shot while having their own “Dhoni finishes off in style” moment in their heads? Such fanaticism is the result of seeing cricket not just as a mere sport, but rather as a way of life.
Over four decades ago in Trinidad, Bunty Lara’s tenth kid out of his 11 was one such fanboy of the game. Playing in his own Lord’s (his backyard), in front of his idols Sir Vivan Richards, Clive Lloyd and Roy Fredericks (whom he visualized in the pots placed as humans), the young kid played so many memorable knocks, soaking in the applause and cheers from the walls with his bat (any tangible thing that resembled a bat) and helmet raised high up as he looked towards the sky. A shampoo bottle which he gave himself was his World Cup.
The only difference from this moment in his backyard, which we witnessed a million times on the field, later on, was that there was never a ball. Up in his head, he prepared himself to be tough and never tried to emulate anyone. The legend of Brian Charles Lara was born in the head of an 11-year-old and like a Martin Scorsese directorial, we saw those events unfold on the screen between the 22 yards blending with drama, excitement and thrill.
Make no mistake, he was quintessentially Caribbean. His bat swing, the little shuffle before a bowler completed his run-up, not a great deal of footwork, slightly weird way of using wrists – his bottom hand’s nails would mirror his face. Everything about him was so West Indian. However, there was a tinge of his own flair and persona, one which no cricketer possessed before.
Unflinching eyes staring at the opponent, a mind religiously dedicated to facing the next ball and a heart firm as a rock, all of it which showed up in his body language, never in his words. Above everything I mentioned, he loved batting for hours and much to the disarray of many great bowlers who suffered via his grit, it was almost impossible to send him back.
Facing Joel Garner and Malcolm Marshall is a tragedy in itself, to do so in your teenage years is asking for trouble too early. Lara, in just his second first-class game, faced these two feisty gentlemen at their prime and registered 92 runs. This knock earned him praises from the legends themselves and laid foundations for greater things to come.
The marathon man of the modern game
He had a thing for big daddy hundreds, which is why he was so difficult to get rid of. We often see batsmen getting carried away after reaching a milestone, but not Lara. Milestones for him were no destinations, they were all a part of a process, which culminated only when he hung up his boots.
The first time he reached three figures, he nearly registered a triple hundred. It took him three years to play five Test matches, a sluggish beginning, but once he yielded his bat’s wrath in Sydney, there was no looking back. That 277-run knock sent ravens across the cricketing kingdoms, that someone special and scary had arrived.
It was a trailer that released in 1993 for the movie that unfolded in 1994. For 36 years, no cricketer came close to touching Sir Garfield Sobers’ record individual knock, before Lara faced England in Antigua. In front of the man who held the record, Lara knocked his 365 off the perch as 375 was the new devoted number.
The exploits of Lara in 1994 had another special chapter in Birmingham, just a couple of months after his exploits in Antigua. As if a 375 wasn’t enough to send shockwaves across the world, he went a few notches further and registered professional cricket’s first and only quintuple century batting for Warwickshire.
We all know the story of Matthew Hayden briefly challenging Lara’s ego, with the Trinidadian Prince eventually having the final laugh. Not that he wanted every cricketing record to be attached with his name, his desire to bat was so strong, those records just fell for him like bees chasing honey.
A knock worthy mention in his glittering portfolio is the one against Australia in the fourth innings of the Bridgetown Test in 1999. Rated by Wisden as the second-greatest knock in Test history after Sir Don’s 270 against England in 1937, Lara orchestrated one of the greatest run-chases of all time with a stellar 153-run knock.
West Indies chased the 308-run target by the skin of their teeth when no one gave them a chance, but that’s what Lara does – he defies odds. Australia could have and perhaps should have won that 1999 series 4-0, but one man stood tall from the Windies. The series eventually finished 2-2.
Born to rule the 22 yards
Despised by opponents in awe and jealousy of his great talent and loved by the ones whose back he held for so long with no major support, he was always under the spotlight. They say a leader with a great army can do wonders, but it is a different ball game with a decent army and one great leader.
That beautiful saying doesn’t apply 100% in Lara’s case, but he did save the West Indian ship from sinking all by himself on numerous occasions. Everything about him was so kingly and regal – his walk towards the pitch, the flawless determination and unquenched hunger. He was indeed born to rule the 22 yards.
Many cricketers believe an ICC trophy to be a crowning jewel in their career. If that were true, perhaps Lara is the greatest king we never had. That takes me back to his childhood days, all the things he imagined to achieve in his backyard.
The walls that cheered him back then turned into an army of supporters devoted to his talent. While he smashed thin air back then with everything that resembled a bat, he managed to smash great and average bowlers alike in his heyday. But that shampoo bottle never morphed itself, it remained the same, it remained a dream.
He sunk that disappointment in and asked “Did I entertain?” in front of a teary Bridgetown crowd, And every voice watching him, in the stadium and on the television screen, screamed “YES”. That yes was the approval of his people; it indicated that he indeed he was their chosen leader. That love he garnered, outweighs the crown he never had.
That king of cricket, a match of whose might we may never see again, was born this day (2nd May), 1969.