| LARA: Unquestionably, the talent remains
Trinidad: A great player or a player of great innings' The jury is still out on West Indies batsman Brian Lara.
What cannot be doubted is the shining talent of a man essential to his country’s hopes of success in the 2003 World Cup.
Lara, who turns 34 this year, has said he wants to be the tournament’s top run-scorer in southern Africa. Such an ambition is not to be taken lightly. In 203 one-day Internationals, Lara averages 42.64 with 15 centuries. His strike rate is a point below 80, demonstrating that he scores quickly as well as prolifically.
Lara’s Test average of 49.49 is fractionally below 50, the accepted benchmark of a great player.
It could be, and perhaps should be, at least 10 points higher, placing him among the elite group of George Headley, Herbert Sutcliffe and Graeme Pollock who averaged over 60 in Test cricket. Only the incomparable Don Bradman, who averaged an extraordinary 99.94, has a better Test record.
This after all was the man who went on to score 277 after recording his maiden Test century against Australia. In his golden year of 1994 he broke Garfield Sobers’ Test record of 365 by 10 runs and went on to score a world record 501 for Warwickshire against Durham.
Lara is no mere run machine. A left-hander like Sobers, his back lift is an exaggerated flourish, his body poised and his footwork swift and sure. He hits the ball thrillingly hard with the elegance of the great left-handers. Although it was an illusion, during his 375 in Antigua every second ball seemed to flash to the boundary. Yet while Lara was at his peak, West Indies were in inexorable decline although it was not until 1995 that they were finally dethroned as unofficial world champions by Australia.
His form fluctuated. There were clashes with administrators and, during the 1995 tour of England, a bitter dressing room dispute which led to Lara quitting the team for several days before returning to hit centuries in each of the last three Tests.
A players’ strike over pay at a hotel near London’s Heathrow Airport in 1998 after Lara had taken over the captaincy did not bode well for the ensuing tour of South Africa. In a humiliating reverse, West Indies were humbled 0-5, a bitter defeat for those who had once ruled the world.
Worse was to follow. Unprecedented anger and confusion swept through the Caribbean after West Indies were dismissed for 51 in the second innings by Australia at Port-of-Spain in 1999, their lowest ever total.
West Indies were seemingly out for the count. Instead in the very next Test in Kingston, Lara stroked a match-winning 213 of such sublime genius that the respected commentator Tony Cozier wrote: “I cannot identify a single innings by any West Indian batsman in our 71 years of Test cricket of such significance.”
Except possibly for his unbeaten 153 in the next Test at Bridgetown as Lara guided West Indies to a one-wicket victory with a masterly innings of technique, nerve and daring. An even 100 in the fourth Test was not enough to deny Australia victory and a 2-2 share of the series.
Unquestionably, the talent remains. On the Sri Lankan tour of 2001 Lara scored 178, 221 and 130, gathering almost half his team’s runs in a losing series. Still the debate continues.