Turning to the crowd that had thronged to watch his last innings, Brian Lara, trying in vain to hold back the emotion asked:
” Did I entertain you?”
A roar of affirmation confirmed the obvious.
As cricket has become increasingly commercialized over the years, the overwhelming focus of those who play it has become “to win”, putting in shade the original intent of the game: that being to entertain. Craft has become slave to science as modern cricket has come to be dominated by “per centage”cricketers whose success is based on performing the basics correctly match after match, with minimal failure.
Brian Lara however was different.
One of the last artists of cricket, his game was characterized by an exaggerated backlift, ballerina-like footwork and an overwhelming reliance on flourishes and extravagance. While others used their bat like a club, Lara used his like a paintbrush. With a penchant for epic canvasses, his 250s, 300s, 400s and 500 will, like the Sistine Chapel, invoke wonder in generations to come not just for their sheer enormity but also for their unsurpassed beauty.
Artists work best under adversity. So did Lara. He came into the side when the great West Indies team of the 80s was in slow decline. By the mid 90s, West Indies were scraping the bottom. Often without support in the batting line-up, fighting against overwhelming odds, some of his finest moments came in single-handedly guiding his team to victory against far stronger opposition.
And what greater example of courage under fire can be than that 153 against Australia (ranked the No 2 greatest Test innings of all time by Wisden)? Coming off a 5-0 drubbing against South Africa with the West Indies team in total crisis and set 308 to win and with half the side gone with 105 on the board with a very long tail to follow, Lara single-handedly shepherded the tail to an amazing victory, thus scripting one of the game’s greatest comebacks.
His battle with McGrath in that match was the stuff of legends: the master sledger of our times pinged Lara on the helmet and then threw out such gentle words of affection that Lara had to be almost physically restrained from responding by his partner, Jimmy Adams. And then as all fell around him, Lara counter-attacked, launching into spectacular drives and pulls, meeting Australian salvo with salvo —defending, attacking, protecting his partners. It was cricket at its dramatic best.
But like most great artists, he was temperamental and moody, his career punctuated by spells of under-performance, caused less by the opposition and more by his own attitude. Not that Lara’s achievements are not staggering, but one wonders how greater his legacy would have been had he been more diplomatic, less brusque and more calculating.
Today however is not the day to talk about such trifles. Today is not the day for regrets and what-could-have-beens. Today is for celebrating the achievements of this giant of the modern game, for closing our eyes and remembering : the aerial pirouette sending the ball crashing to the mid-wicket fence, the crouching tiger-like shimmy down the pitch to the spinners, the savage square cut through the packed off-side.
And today is for rejoicing in our good fortune of having been part of a generation that witnessed, first hand, things that will one day become folklore.
Farewell Brian Charles Lara. And thank you.