Brian Lara hit 92 centuries during his brilliant 20-year first-class career. Unfortunately for me, he never hit any of them while I was watching in person. The several times I saw him play, he often had poor or mediocre outings. Actually, let me take that back. I saw him hit a century in 1995. But it was in a friendly match (a little too friendly) at Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale. Lara teamed up with some aging former West Indies players against a local squad. Lara entertained the crowd with some vintage shots, but he also skied the ball several times. Oddly, the catches were always dropped. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but I would bet the organizers told the local team to assure that Lara stayed in the wicket as long as possible. After all, it was Lara whom the fans came out to see. Lara eventually got his century, the fans went home happy, and all was well in Cricketville.
Brian Charles Lara – the other “Little Master” and arguably the most exciting batsman of his generation – turned 50 on May 2, 2019. For cricket folks, that’s a half century. Knowing Lara, we should not be surprised if he keeps batting for some time. Lara is the only player in cricket history to hit 100, 200, 300, 400 and 500. His 501 not out for English club Warwickshire in 1994 is the highest individual score in first-class history. He thrived on big innings. Unlike some batsmen who hit a century and often gave away their wicket soon after because they mentally felt their job was done, Lara was greedy. If he got 100, he wanted 200, and so on.
During the 20th century, it seemed as if a legendary West Indies batsman came along every 20 years. George Headley passed the baton to Garry Sobers, Sobers passed it to Viv Richards, and Richards passed it to Lara. Those other legends had more talented teammates around them, so it can be argued that Lara’s stats deserve more merit because they were accomplished under more pressure. Comparing eras is often a dicey proposition, but Lara faced a heavier burden that his predecessors. When he made his Test debut in 1990, West Indian legends such as Richards, Gordon Greenidge, Joel Garner, Michael Holding and Andy Roberts were either gone or on their way out. So whenever the inevitable arguments arise over which batsmen are the best in West Indies history, one must not just look at their raw stats but also the circumstances under which they achieved them.
I recently re-watched Lara’s 400 not out against England in 2004, which remains the highest score in Test cricket. His shots were not only awe-inspiring but technical and precise. He hit several fours that barely cleared the outstretched arms of the slip fieldsmen, a feat that has little margin for error. Some batsmen pick their shots wisely and wait for bad deliveries. Lara consistently put away good deliveries with a deft touch, bisecting fielders with purpose rather than hitting the ball as hard as he could and hoping for good results. If Viv Richards was Mike Tyson, Lara was Sugar Ray Leonard, killing you softly.
I not only got to see Lara play in person, I interviewed him a few times. Off the field, he could be very mercurial and even callous. On Monday, March 12, 2007, I covered the West Indies team’s practice at Kensington Park in Kingston, Jamaica. The Windies were preparing for their opening match in that year’s Cricket World Cup. Kensington Park, home of the Kensington Cricket Club, is located in a poor neighborhood near downtown Kingston. As the team practiced, many young boys from the neighborhood gathered outside the gates, elated that the West Indies team, led by the legendary Lara, was in their area. Most of them wore ragged clothes, and some were shirtless. When the practice finished, Lara and the other players began walking toward the team bus that was parked just outside the gate. “Lara!” “Lara!” “Lara!” the boys began shouting, hoping to get the star’s attention, whether for an autograph or a simple chat. Lara walked past the dozens of kids, looking straight ahead, and stepped onto the bus as if the children were invisible. I looked on in disbelief. The disappointment on the faces of the kids was heartbreaking. Even if he was not in the mood to mingle with the children a bit, he could have said, “Kids, sorry, I have to leave. Maybe another time.” But to not acknowledge them at all was quite jarring. It was a stark reminder that even our stars are flawed.
If Viv Richards was Mike Tyson, BRIAN Lara was Sugar Ray Leonard, killing you softly.
A couple days before the unfortunate snub of the kids, I interviewed Lara at Jarrett Park in Montego Bay. I asked him about his feud with Australia fast bowler Glenn McGrath. Lara enjoyed some classic innings against Australia but always seemed to have trouble against McGrath, who got him out for duck or low scores several times. Lara’s career Test batting average was 52.88. But his personal average against McGrath was about 28. Lara and McGrath also exchanged words on the field and almost came to blows. “We had our battles on the field,” Lara said, suggesting the animosity never seeped off the field. The following evening I met McGrath during a World Cup welcome party. I asked him if his battles with Lara ever got personal. “I don’t know about him,” he said, “but not for me.” After my interaction with both men, I found McGrath much more gracious and friendly. Two men. Both legends. But distinctly different demeanors.
The West Indies team reached the Super 8 round of that year’s World Cup, but it would turn out to be the last time Lara wore a West Indies uniform. He retired from Test cricket with 34 Test centuries and 11,953 Test runs, both West Indies team records. His Test record 400 not out has lasted 15 years and counting. He was often compared to Sachin Tendulkar, the other great batsman during Lara’s era. Tendulkar’s statistics are in the stratosphere and he will go down in cricket lore as possibly the best ever. But Lara’s legacy is secure as well.
The last time I saw Lara in person was on January 25, 2015 at Central Broward Regional Park in Fort Lauderdale. He was in town for West Indies Legends Weekend. He looked fit, happy and rested. He competed in a Legends game. At 45 years old, he still looked like the Lara of old at times, unleashing classic drives through the covers. After the match, he made his way through the crowd as a throng of fans requested autographs and selfies. He was patient and much more amenable than I remembered. He autographed a bat for me that also has the signatures of fellow West Indies icons Garry Sobers, Lance Gibbs and Wes Hall. I will always treasure that bat, just as I treasure getting the opportunity to watch one of the best in my favorite sport.
Happy birthday, Brian Lara. Now it’s on toward a century.